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Officers clear homeless from state property near Port Angeles

PORT ANGELES — A homeless encampment that showed evidence of a developing commmunity east of Port Angeles was emptied of four men and a woman during a sweep by state and Clallam County officers.

On Friday, a dozen state Department of Fish Wildlife police and Sheriff’s Office deputies went through the 130-acre Fish Wildlife parcel, off the U.S. Highway 101-Morse Creek curve, where even temporary camping is newly banned.

After they determined the people were living there, “they were told what you are doing is unlawful, and you need to leave,” Fish Wildlife Police Sgt. Kit Rosenberger said.

They were told that after Aug. 12, “we have the right to remove your belongings.”

The officers carried their service weapons, including one armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Rosenberger said the weaponry is commonly employed as insurance against possibly armed occupants for clearing out such areas.

They discovered eight developed, illegal residential campsites, most of which could hold several people.

The officers found a common dumping area with 30 bags of garbage near the entrance of the property, and deeper within the parcel an apparent barter tent with three bike frames and a dozen tires and rims stored inside.

Bicycle parts sit in a tent posted with an eviction notice in a homeless camp on state Fish Wildlife land in the Morse Creek Valley east of Port Angeles on Friday. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Rosenberger and Darric Lowery, Fish Wildlife’s Olympic Wildlife Area manager, walked the property Friday morning as the sweep wrapped up. They were joined by Fish Wildlife officer Tierra Wessel.

Rosenberger said he didn’t know where the people who lived on the property would go after being told to leave.

He said he had tried without success to find someplace in Port Angeles where they could stay after contacting the Port Angeles Police Department and a homeless social services agency.

The property, heavily wooded in some areas and flat with tall grass in others, was being actively inhabited when the officers arrived Friday morning. They found signs of a developing community.

“I want this bike please,” was scrawled on a note laying on the ground outside the tent, next to a bike with a “bike gang” tool seat-pouch.

“I’ll owe you two things you can choose.”

State Department of Fish Wildlife Police Officer Tierra Wessel, left, and Sgt. Kit Rosenberger survey habitat damage to Morse Creek near a homeless camp east of Port Angeles on Friday. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

The five adults left the property without incident during the sweep, Fish Wildlife Sgt. Ken Blazs said as the officers single-filed off the urban wildlife preserve.

Because of the increased illegal camping, Fish Wildlife is temporarily banning camping on the parcel until a permanent ban is enacted, officials said.

“From what we are seeing here, and the amount of people that are unlawfully, not just camping, but setting up residence camping, we are working on day-use only,” Rosenberger said.

“We want to protect this as an urban wildlife area and keep it in that regard.”

Lowery said the property, ribboned with trails trampled by and wide enough for human feet, was purchased in 2002 by Fish Wildlife to protect it from development, provide habitat for urban wildlife and restore salmon- and steelhead-bearing Morse Creek.

Darric Lowery, Olympic area manager for the state Department of Fish Wildlife, examines a social trail that may have been blazed by homeless people through a wildlife preserve in the Morse Creek Valley. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

“This is a big parcel,” Lowery said.

The creek, which begins its journey in the Olympic Mountains and ends it in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, rushes by 100 feet from a campsite.

Strewn about was a metal tire rim-fire pit, a fishing pole, fishing beads, a wetsuit and a four-wheel cart.

Also on the ground was a first-aid kit, broken binoculars, a bow saw for illegally cutting limbs, several 5-gallon buckets often used at such sites for excrement, and a yin-yang sign carved into a tree. Below it was etched a four-letter expletive beginning with “F.”

“I think those two things kind of go against each other,” said Wessel, who was posting what amounted to the eviction notices on the tents.

Rocks had been placed in two small circles in the creek, possibly to capture water to keep food and drinks cold. What appeared to be a roughly constructed fish weir dammed part of the flow.

County sheriff’s deputies walked through the site about 10 days ago, warning occupants of citations for violating a provision in the state administrative code that makes it illegal to establish a camp on Fish Wildlife land for more than 21 days within a 30-day period.

On Friday, deputies and Fish Wildlife officers from throughout the region who parked multiple vehicles on Highway 101 walked about 1,500 feet into the preserve.

Wessel attached the red-striped “ATTENTION” notices to tents warning occupants to immediately leave and remove all personal property and refuse.

The illegal occupants of four tents on the property left in 2018, but more homeless had returned since then, officers said.

They were discovered July 11 when felony suspect Toka John Lavacca, 40, was chased down and apprehended by sheriff’s Deputy Paul Federline, who helped conduct Friday’s sweep.

Authorities said Lavacca was on the run for two days after pointing a handgun at a couple walking their dog in a nearby neighborhood before he fled and was found at the homeless encampment. Authorities had identified him in court records as a transient.

He has been charged with two counts each of assault with a deadly weapon and harassment-threats to kill, and one count of first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm.

Lavacca, who has pleaded not guilty, has a Superior Court status hearing Thursday.

Federline said Lavacca was apprehended about 200 yards up a hill from the garbage dump in an area where three campsites were situated. On one was a tent in which six or seven people could sleep.

“He took off running when he saw me,” Federline said.

Federline said the gun Lavacca allegedly wielded has not been recovered.

Federline, who took part in the sweep Friday, said the Lavacca incident was one reason an officer carried an assault rifle.

He said the trail from the campsite leads directly to two known drug houses in the 200 block of Deer Park Road.

The gray tent with bicycle tires and frames inside had a machete with a 16-inch blade laying near a fire pit and two carts nearby.

Up that trail, officers yelled “Police! Police!” before entering a cluster of three campsites.

One plastic-covered shelter had a small abstract painting propped up at the entrance and two books leaning against an inside corner.

“It’s a private residence,” Rosenberger warned a curious reporter.

The fire pit smelled of recently burned wood.

Wessel, who posted five warning notices on tents Friday morning, said another campsite about 30 feet away had been created by someone who had dug about 6 feet down, breaking visible roots and making a pit large enough to stand upright.

The person topped off the enclosure with a plywood roof.

“You can see all the trash gradually going down the hill as he’s been building,” Wessel said, pointing out an adjacent orange tent that had collapsed.

“This is a little more extensive than we’re used to finding.”

The third site contained a tent big enough for four or five people. Inside was a tiny table in the center. Several shoes and articles of clothing were scattered on the floor.

Outside was a lounge chair. Off to the side, against a tree, a broken toy car pointed downhill.

“This to me is more than just coming for a week to go camping,” Rosenberger said.

“Someone is living here.

“This land was not purchased by the public to be used that way.”

Rosenberger said the goal is to begin abatement procedures and cleanup by Aug. 12.

The Sheriff’s Office Chain Gang may help with trash and tent removal, Rosenberger and Lowery said.

“This is a microcosm of what statewide we are looking at,” Rosenberger said, “especially when you have land like this, that’s secluded, but near a town.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

Officer Tierra Wessel of the Fish Wildlife Police points out a shelter carved into a hillside on a fish and wildlife preserve near Morse Creek. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)