July 25, 2003 -- America's national parks have long been a perfect escape for vacationers, places where families could retreat to a world where the biggest fear was a run-in with a local bear.
Times have changed — and so have the parks. While families camp and boat and enjoy the beautiful wilderness, park rangers are suiting up in camouflage to fight drug dealers, smugglers, and even, on occasion, terrorists.
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"Just about any type of crime that goes on in any urban environment happens out here," said Dale Antonich, chief ranger at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, located in Nevada and Arizona.
"We've had rapes, we've had murders in the park, we've had bodies dumped in the park," Antonich said.
An hour outside of Las Vegas, Lake Mead is one of America's busiest parks. Rangers also considered it to be one of the top 10 most dangerous parks.
At Lake Mead, 36 rangers try to safeguard some 8 million visitors a year, policing more than 1.5 million acres of land, including historic Hoover Dam, and nearly 750 miles of shoreline.
Last year, rangers responded to more than 20,000 incidents — ranging from drunken driving, to boating accidents, to assault, to suicide. Nearly 1,400 were criminal investigations.
20/20 rode along with rangers over the busy Memorial Day weekend. In one instance, they responded to an assault call in which a man, recently on parole after serving time for carjacking, was assaulting his mother. His mother, rangers learned, is a convicted felon times two, for child molestation and kidnapping.
Family Vacation Nightmares
Elsewhere in the park, we and the rangers met the Klasing family, who came to Lake Mead looking for the serenity of nature, but wound up witnessing an ugly scene involving some other campers.
"The woman was screaming, 'You're hurting me,' and the tent was flying all over the place. … Never dreamed we'd run into that. That's why we bring our kids here," said Sue Klasing, describing the incident to the rangers.
The rangers sorted out the domestic disturbance, only to find the troubled family has other problems. They're homeless and had been staying in the park for about a month.
The vacation is one the Klasings will never forget, but not for the right reasons. "This is not how you build family memories," said Bill Klasing.
"You want to be able to come out here and camp at a beach and feel safe and we can't assure that anymore," Antonich said.
Antonich, who's been chief ranger at Lake Mead for 12 years, says crime in the parks is not new, but having fewer rangers to fight it is.
Antonich isn't alone in his assessment. An Interior Department audit from five years ago tells the whole story. It recommended a substantial increase in rangers here to fight growing crime. But since then, Lake Mead has actually lost 16 rangers, roughly a third of the ranger squad.
"You get 5 [million] to 10 million people visiting, you're going to have problems, and if you're a bad guy or you're trying to hide from the law, what better place to go?" Antonich said.
Lake Mead isn't the only major park with these kinds of policing problems, Antonich says. To varying degrees, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Great Smokey Mountains, and Yellowstone are all in the same boat.
Lawlessness Along the Borders
And yet, as troubling as urban crime may be, it is nothing compared to the lawlessness we found in parks along the nation's borders.
More than 600 miles of the United States' northern and southern borders are covered by parks, like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the border of Arizona and Mexico, where a handful of rangers are forced to patrol more than 30 miles of border.
The result is often an open door for an alarming and growing number of international drug traffickers and even potential terrorists.
The rangers at Organ Pipe wear camouflage and bulletproof vests, and carry assault rifles. They look like special forces soldiers on patrol in Iraq, but they are park rangers on duty in what rangers believe is the most dangerous park in America. For several nights we went on patrol to see what they are up against.
The rangers 20/20 spoke with never thought they'd be pulling such heavy duty — dealing with illegal immigration and drug smuggling — when they went into the park ranger service.
Bo Stone, 35, became a ranger to teach an appreciation of the great outdoors. But now he is on a stakeout, peering through his night-vision scope, dealing with crime and violence.
Stone says there's heavy traffic in the desert at night. "I'll bet you there is between 300 and 500 [people] coming through there at night," he said.
And that's a low estimate. How many are armed, how many are willing to take out a ranger?
Stone says it sometimes feels as if they are at war here — and the rangers are incredibly outmanned and outgunned. At times, there are only three or four rangers on duty covering 330,000 acres.
Will Terrorists Follow the Lead of Illegal Immigrants?
In the post-9/11 world, this brings to mind some frightening concerns. "If 15 illegal immigrants can come up here and get jobs, so can 15 terrorists," Stone said.
That is exactly the concern of Dan Wirth, president of the ranger chapter of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
"They could be carrying weapons of mass destruction and bringing 'em right into the country, loading 'em up and moving 'em through. We don't know," Wirth said.
Rangers estimate that nearly 250,000 people came through the park illegally just last year.
Wirth gave 20/20 a look at surveillance photos showing illegal immigrants on the move. "If you could pick out the 10 al Qaeda cell members in that group — what you need to realize is this is just one small incident happening in one isolated area on a single night. This is literally happening hundreds of times across the border every night," Wirth said.
And Wirth isn't just speculating that individuals with ties to terrorist groups have entered the parks; he said it has actually happened.
Wirth told us about several terrorists who had ties to our national parks.
One was Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer. He entered walked down from Canada through the North Cascades National Park in 1996. Mezer was subsequently convicted of plotting to bomb the New York subway system and sentenced to life in prison.
Another was Wadih el Hage, an al Qaeda member convicted of conspiracy in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings case. A decade earlier, Wirth says, a park ranger in an Arizona national park found him taking target practice with a fully automatic AK-47.
Troubling Consequence of Effective Border Patrol
So, why are the parks and public lands so vulnerable? Wirth says it is because policing at the main border crossings is so effective.
"It's like a balloon," Wirth said. "Anytime you squeeze a balloon in one area, it's just forcing out [air] into a different area. Unfortunately, that area is the least-protected area — the national parks."
And if they are at war here in the parks, they are also taking casualties.
In August 2002, 28-year-old Kris Eggle, a ranger at Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, was killed while investigating a carjacking involving some smugglers who had fled from Mexico into the park. He was hit by three rounds from an AK-47.
By all accounts, Eggle was the best of the best: an Eagle Scout, an athlete and a valedictorian. He was also very committed to protecting the parks.
His mother, Bonnie, remembers a knock on the door, and learning of the shooting. "He said Kris has been shot, he was ambushed and he's really in a bad, bad a bad way. And my first thought was, of course he was still alive. And I said, 'Where is he? I need to go to him. I have to get to him. Please take me to him.' "
But it was already too late. Since then, Bonnie Eggle and her husband, Bob, have been fighting for change in the parks, and for accountability.
"We do blame Congress. We blame the Department of the Interior. We blame the National Park Service, to the degree that they knew there was a problem and yet they did nothing about it, and now they are playing catchup because Kris is dead," Bonnie Eggle said.
This month, Interior Secretary Gale Norton rebuffed allegations that park safety is in jeopardy. "Our parks today are much more secure than they have been in the past. We have more people on patrol. We have increased the number of law enforcement in our parks," Norton said.
That's not what the rangers say. So which is it? Are the parks more safe or less safe than ever?
Larry Parkinson, first deputy assistant secretary of the interior for law enforcement and security, the man in charge of enhancing park safety, says the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
"In some places they are not safer than they've ever been; in some places they are," Parkinson said.
But taking into account the poor crime reporting, the decrease in rangers — despite budget money being available — it seems there may be a different truth — that perhaps security has not been the priority in the parks.
Parkinson said, "I think that's fair to say, that security and law enforcement has not received attention it should have."
To the rangers who are worried about their safety, worried about visitor safety, and worried that they are not being taken seriously, Parkinson says: "We will do everything we can to make sure that they can do their job in a safe and effective manner. … Things will get better."
That is a vow Bonnie and Bob Eggle hope the government is able to keep.
"We don't want any more of these deaths to happen, and it is still a very real possibility," Bonnie Eggle said.