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Violence Hits National Parks

June 29, 1998

CHEROKEE, N.C. (AP) _ Summer is cooler and slower here, where mountain peaks drop to green forests. But even with the respite, travelers are a bit uneasy after a recent outburst of violence.

While bikers and families in RVs pull over at scenic outlooks, flags at the nearby park service office flutter at half staff for National Park Service ranger Joe Kolodski, fatally shot on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

``The thought of somebody doing this gives me goose bumps,″ said Chuck Hoffman, a retired fireman from Florida taking a break from his motorcycle. ``This can happen anywhere. I don’t care if it’s New York or Florida or anywhere.″

Statistics show crime has plummeted in the 376 national parks. The U.S. Park Service says parks are safer today than a decade ago. Kolodski’s death _ he was shot on Father’s Day while responding to a report of a man with a rifle frightening tourists _ is an aberration, officials say.

With a record 279 million visitors last year, there were 14 murders in national parks, compared with 24 in 1990. There were 170 assaults in national parks last year, down from 448 in 1990. Robberies also were down.

Kolodski’s slaying at the Big Witch Overlook came three weeks after a shooting at Hovenweep National Monument in Utah. Three men in camouflage shot at park superintendent Art Hutchinson, but he escaped uninjured.

``National parks are safer than they were three years ago, and they were safer then than they were five years before that,″ National Park Service spokesman David Barna said Friday. ``We are a microcosm of society.″

The jobs of rangers changed two decades ago after poachers killed a California park ranger with a crossbow in 1973. The death led to intensive law enforcement training.

``Prior to that, we had a rule that rangers should keep their weapon in the glove compartment,″ Barna said.

On the parkway, Thomas Varnes of Middleburg, Fla., said he wasn’t going to let one shooting stop him from enjoying the park. But he was aware of it.

``I’ve been camping right down the mountain for the last 18 years and this isn’t going to chase us away,″ he said after he stopped his camper at the overlook. ``It bothers my wife, though. She’s scared to death.″

Jeremiah ``Jerry″ Locust Sr., 47, a gardener and maintenance worker in Cherokee, has been charged with murder in Kolodski’s death.

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