Drugs and crime not uncommon in national forests

A view looking east from the Ocala Central Fire Tower on State Road 40 over a portion of the 200,000-acre Sand Pine Scrub ecosystem. The highway splits the Ocala National Forest in half.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 9:18 p.m.
As in other national forests, some people take advantage of the remoteness of parts of the Ocala National Forest.
On Jan. 3, Santa Fe Community College students John Parker and Amber Marie Peck had gone to the forest for an overnight camping trip in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. They were found shot to death four days later.
Early speculation of a motive in the killings - before Leo Lancing Boatman of Largo was arrested and charged with their murders - included suggestions that Parker and Peck had stumbled upon a drug operation or some other illegal enterprise.
Officials acknowledge that such activity does exist in the forest.
"There have been a couple of meth labs out there," said Sue Livoti of the Marion County Sheriff's Office, referring to the manufacture of the dangerous street drug methamphetamine. "Those are usually run out of the back of a car. It's a good place to hide out."
Denise Rains, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Tallahassee, said that over the last couple of years, forest staff occasionally have found evidence of meth-making operations.
Typically, she said, it is in the form of a dumping ground for the materials used in the manufacture of the drug.
She said patches of marijuana also are not uncommon in the forest. Sometimes pot fields are discovered during flyovers conducted by forest staff.
Bret Bush, recreation program manager for the Ocala National Forest, said the marijuana problem there is minor compared to other national forests in which he has worked.
"At one forest we were (destroying) 15,000 pot plants a year," he said.
In the Ocala forest, Bush said, forestry officials only occasionally come across plots of marijuana.
Livoti said that for the Marion County Sheriff's Office, the most common criminal activity associated with the forest is burglary and theft, followed by assault. Sometimes people come out of the woods and burglarize a nearby residence, convenience store or other business, she said.
She said illegal hunting - at night or out of season - also is one of the crimes her department has been called in on.
"But I'd say the biggest thing I can remember is people just getting lost in the forest," Livoti said.
The February Rainbow Gatherings, when thousands of people come to the forest for several days of activities, generally don't pose serious problems, Rains said. When trouble occurs, she said, it's often with people on the periphery who hang out in the parking lots and drink.
She said forest law enforcement is running into "more urban" types of crime, including domestic disturbances among visitors.
"There certainly is recognition of increasing urban issues in the forest," Rains said.

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