Douglas sees shift in crime locations
Crime isn’t what it used to be, nor is it occurring where it used to be.
When Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini first became a captain at the Lake Tahoe substation 20 years ago, 80 percent of the crime in the county was here, with the remainder in the valley. Today 60 percent of Douglas County’s crime is in the valley, with 40 percent at the lake.
Sprawling subdivisions have brought an influx of people to the Carson Valley, which inevitably brings crime. There was also a time when extortion at the casinos is what kept deputies hopping.
Pierini touched on some of the high profile crimes in a talk this month to members of Leadership Lake Tahoe.
Stateline had the dubious distinction of being the site of the largest domestic bombing until the World Trade Center bombing in 1992. On Aug. 27, 1980, Harvey’s blew up in what turned out to be a three-day event.
“They didn’t give the right directions to drop off the money,” Pierini said of the suspects who were apprehended a year after the bombing.
It was a complex bomb disguised as a computer. The switches were made out of mercury, which meant anything that disturbed the mechanism could make it go off.
“To this day, we don’t know how to disarm it,” Pierini said.
He remembers officials — the FBI and ATF were brought in to help — taking fingerprints off the device, all the while knowing if they moved it, it would go off.
An attempt to blow off the switches before it hit the dynamite failed, and the casino was destroyed.
Another time the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department made national headlines was when a man in the late 1970s tried to break the speed record on Lake Tahoe. His boat disintegrated, and it took crews a week to retrieve his body from the lake floor.
Right after Pierini became sheriff five years ago, Sonny Bono died while skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort.
Most incidents that deputies and investigators deal with are more routine. Pierini has 50 patrol personnel across 750 square miles. Fifty percent of the land in the county is federal property. One thing that makes the job difficult is handling three distinct areas — Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley and Topaz.
Also at Pierini’s disposal are 350 volunteers: reserves, explorers, citizen volunteers, posse, and search and rescue.
A boat patrol with two paid reservists is on the lake five days a week from mid-May to mid-September. The only deputy to die on duty under Pierini’s watch slipped off a boat and fell into the lake.
The sheriff’s office handles about 40,000 calls a year. Even though 72 percent of the crimes go unsolved, investigators are ahead of the national average. Pierini said on average 22.5 percent of crimes are solved nationwide.
He believes the success rate will increase as technology improves, citing DNA evidence making a huge difference. A unique factor, especially at the lake, is that much of the crime is committed by tourists who are not necessarily around long enough to be apprehended.
That influx of out-of-towners taxes the department every New Year’s Eve. In 1976, people started to take over the road in the casino corridor. Pierini described the situation as getting worse in the subsequent years.
After the casino loop road was paved in 1978, he decided to close the main drag in 1979. That year, 2,000 people took to the street; this year, he said, there were 80,000 revelers.
Pierini said it is safer to let the masses take over the street than to corral them in the casinos, especially when a bulk of them are under 21. Many of the fun-seekers are between age 14 and 25. Misdemeanor alcohol infractions account for the majority of the citations issued by deputies.
An area of concern is drugs, with more young people turning to methamphetamine on a regular basis. Drugs have always been prevalent at the lake, with Pierini noting the 24-hour culture and faster way of life here than in the valley.
“Education and prevention are the only way we are going to stop usage,” he said.
He is a big supporter of DARE and rehabilitation programs, instead of prison terms.
The sheriff said 80 percent of prisoners have experienced alcohol or substance abuse — that they are either behind bars for a drug crime, or that it was being used during the commission of a crime, or that a crime was committed so more drugs could be obtained.
“Crank, methamphetamine, is one of the biggest problems because of the economy,” Pierini said. “You can make a lot of money fast and easy. It’s easier than getting coke from South America.”
But he admitted cocaine usage is on the upswing.
What he worries about with meth is that is harder to kick the habit because the psychological and physical addictions are greater than cocaine.
“Overall, I would say drug use is increasing. I see it in the middle school,” Investigator Tim Minister said. “Parent reaction ranges from ‘I had no idea’ to ‘Why arrest him? What he does on his own time is his own business.'”
With that attitude, officials have an uphill battle. Small schools also add to the problem.
“As long as you have low numbers in schools, there are more problems in schools,” Pierini said.
Peer pressure and intimidation from bullies play into the reality that kids go along to get along.