‘Are You Going to Kill Me?’ — How Garberville is Struggling with Vagrants and a Perception of Increasing Violence

Kym Kemp / Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 @ 10:29 a.m. / Crime

When Michelle Bushnell, one of the new owners of the Bootleg and a long time resident, began strapping down supplies in the back of her pickup in front of the Southern Humboldt Builders Service on Thursday, she left her truck running. She was just outside the open passenger door when a wild-eyed man ran down the hill with his arms outstretched “like he was flying” from the Veteran’s Park.  She says, he was screaming, “Are you going to kill me?” He ran right to the driver’s side of her pickup.

At first, she thought he was going to steal her vehicle.  But then as he glared through the window at her, she says she began to be physically afraid. “I felt like he could kill me right now and he wouldn’t even know…It scared the living crap out of me.”

Still, she had the presence of mind to lean in, turn off the truck, grab the keys, and run.  She ran towards the door of the store.  “I was yelling for Ron Olsen [the store owner] to call the cops.”  Meanwhile, the wild-eyed man ran circles around her with his arms still outstretched, still yelling. 

“Ron came out…I ran into the store.” They shut the door to the business.  As they watched, the man rushed up the hill and got into a fistfight with another man in the park.  Then, Bushnell says, “[He] ran back down like he was flying …and began vomiting all over the parking lot.”

Olsen called 911 and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s arrived just in time to find the wild-eyed man in front of the Tiger Lily Bookstore. [Go here for a witness’ view and here for the Sheriff’s press release.] Later, he was determined to have ingested LSD.

To some in Garberville, Bushnell’s experience is just another example of what local residents are facing in town. An escalation of not only vagrants but vagrants with drug or alcohol problems who don’t follow social norms.

“Kids are scared and parents are scared,” says local businessman, Blake Lehman. He says that many parents in Garberville are unwilling to let their kids walk home from the school bus alone anymore. They have to make arrangements for an adult to meet them.

Lehman himself had a problem on the same day as Bushnell. Earlier he was driving to a school board meeting.  He saw a woman walking her dog confronted by a man.  “The man,” Lehman says, “was flipping out on her.  She was obviously scared.”  Lehman got out his car and told the man to leave the woman alone. The man cursed in response and eventually pulled out a knife which, according to Lehman, he waved in Lehman’s face.  “He was obviously whacked out,” Lehman said. The woman had managed to leave and Lehman was able to call 911. The man left the area before officers arrived.  The police have a description and are looking for the suspect.

Ron Olsen, the owner of Southern Humboldt Builders Service, says that the situation is hurting businesses, too. He lives downhill from the park. Olsen says, “I’ve had a number of people tell me that they won’t come to my store and not just me but to the rest of Garberville.” He says that the incidents like what happened to Bushnell create a hostile environment for community members trying to do shopping.  “Those kinds of things affect business,” he worries. 

There is no doubt in the mind of Anna Bignon, owner of Little Sprouts, a children’s clothing store, that the large number of “travelers or vagrants” as she calls them affected her business.  Bignon says that she used to be up at the south end of Main Street near the largest grocery store in town. “One of the main problems was that vagrants sat on the sidewalk with their dogs…sometimes up to 30 travelers.” Her customers didn’t want to walk their children up through the clusters of people.  “My own son who was 8 at the time wouldn’t walk past them to Flavors.”  She says he was uncomfortable getting off the bus and walking by himself through town.”  Bignon said that her friends who were working for her at the store would sometimes call her to come in because they “would feel threatened…they didn’t feel safe.” 

Bignon says that the travelers would crouch down on the curb between her shop and the cars “…selling drugs…doing drugs.”  She was afraid to tell them to go away herself. She had heard rumors of retribution. “We called the sheriff maybe 20 or 30 times but I was afraid to [tell them to leave] myself.”   Last year, just as she thought she couldn’t stand it anymore, the harvest ended. “Once the rain started to come, there were less of them.”

This year she moved her shop to a side street. She says that the vagrants don’t hang out there.  Her son has a friend and they walk home together so he isn’t worried anymore. But still, she is bothered by the way the main street is covered with travelers. “It’s all you see when you walk down the streets of Garberville,” she says. As a young woman, she adds, “All you hear are catcalls…I want to see my neighbors and talk to them…but people are getting in and getting out of stores.”  They aren’t walking around, she says, because the travelers make them feel uncomfortable.

“I don’t think this is our local homeless,” Bignon says.  She says she knows them and they don’t bother her. “But, there are so many transients drawn to this area…Sometimes we are such a welcoming community…maybe too welcoming.”

Blake Lehman, the school board member and businessman wants to see the community stand up and stop what he sees as a worsening situation. “My goal,” he says, “is to get this out on the public airwaves.  We’re not putting up with it any more….My family has been here for three generations…What happened to me, happened to me because we have allowed the behavior to get out of hand.” 

Lehman says that crime has increased and people have to lock their doors.  In the nearby community of Redway, he says, “[The homeless] come down off the hill from their camps and through the neighborhoods…computers and camera equipment were stolen…I never imagined I would have to lock my house and my vehicle.”

Olsen suggests that one way to create a better environment for the community is to clamp down on certain already illegal behavior.  “I know doing illegal drugs, or drinking, or having dogs not on a leash is illegal.”  He believes that working to quash that kind of behavior might help. 

Another way might be to wait for the rains…

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