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Death In the Old Forest

What can be done to protect people in Overton Park?



High above the shadows of Overton Park's Old Forest, the wind whispers in the centuries-old hardwood canopy. This parcel of nature, a world away from the city's bright lights and concrete, has been recently invaded by two-legged predators.

A little more than two weeks ago, two men stabbed each other to death -- one a would-be thief, the other defending himself, it appears -- on the forest trails south of Rainbow Lake. As police investigated the crime scene, park-goers gathered to share their shock and horror -- and theories about the incident. One woman simply wondered when they would clear out so she could walk her dog.

This wasn't the first violent incident this year in Memphis' central park, but its dramatic nature attracted television news trucks and the fickle spotlight of local media coverage.

West Precinct police statistics report five robberies in the park since January -- a veritable crime wave compared to just one robbery for all of 2001.

The incident begs the questions: Why did two people have to die to bring these robberies to the public's attention? And what can be done to protect people in Overton Park?

Don Richardson, chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, says Overton Park has long been neglected by city services. He points to an abandoned picnic pavilion renovation and an inconsistent police presence, which he believes has led to the rash of robberies and the park's use for prostitution and illicit rendezvous.

Acknowledging the difficulty of patrolling the park from a police car, Park Friends, a park advocacy group, even helped the city get a grant for 24 police bicycles and uniforms, Richardson says. The bikes, or even horses, could be used to patrol the park, but he says he hasn't seen either very often in Overton Park.

Even though the Memphis Park Commission employs park rangers, Richardson and other environmentalists have felt it necessary to look after the park themselves. A self-guided walking tour of the Old Forest was spearheaded by Richardson and other private citizens, and they have also taken it upon themselves to evict squatters who have set up camps in isolated parts of the forest.

Given the recent robberies, squatters, and those who use the woods for sexual activity, the Old Forest doesn't seem like such a friendly place these days. But Richardson says his group refuses to surrender such a unique natural resource to negative influences.

"None of this could happen if we had more people in there," says Richardson, who often patrols the park with a six-foot walking stick that can also be used for self-defense. "This breed [muggers] needs isolation to feel welcomed."

Richardson says he doesn't want people to be frightened away from the park, but they should be careful. The image of neglect could be erased, he says, by resuming regular bike patrols, finishing the picnic pavilion, installing lights where the majority of the prostitution takes place, and closing the park after dark.

Calling the West Precinct to get an update on the investigation into the robberies and deaths, this reporter was bounced from officer to officer before finally being told that all media inquiries must go through the public-relations department.

After leaving several unreturned messages for Officer Latonya Able, I finally caught her at her desk. I asked if there was a description of the attackers or if they thought any of the robberies were related. Uncooperative and almost hostile, Able refused to offer any details on the investigations, saying only that patrols would be used to "assure the citizens that everything's okay in the park."

After three minutes or so, Able said she had to go and that I should call tomorrow. The next day, she wasn't available.

Richardson says three of the five robberies happened on the bridge south of Rainbow Lake and that the stabbings took place in the woods about 100 yards from the same location -- information withheld by the police that could prevent someone else from becoming a future victim.

Cary Holladay, who handles public relations for Park Services, says the picnic pavilion renovation was abandoned after the contractor went out of business. A new contractor has been found, she says, and the project will start up again this month.

The police provide security for the city's parks, Holladay says, adding that park rangers are not used for security but rather are placed at the city's largest parks during the summer to provide "customer service and answer questions."

Spring has come to the Old Forest. Trees are sprouting new leaves, and a colorful variety of shoots and wildflowers are poking their way through the carpet of dead foliage.

The warm weather lures joggers and dog-walkers back into the park after the winter chill. A new season is here, bringing hope for a change in the weather -- and in the attitude of those charged with protecting the public.

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