Thursday, September 11, 2003

Park's reputation undergoing change



By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - Rangers are out in Devou Park, and it's no secret.

An international Web site that claims to list the top public places where men can cruise for sex with other men recently warned its users that rangers now patrol the park.

Residents can rest assured that complaints of misconduct, including sex, in Devou have been deterred, the rangers say.

The park became known as a possible sex site partially via a Web site that describes the 700 hillside acres with wooded trails as a "cruisy park." A Web site posting cautions users that rangers began patrols in Devou Park this summer.

"Park rangers have been hired to monitor the park continuously due to public complaints of sex acts in the area," a user told the Web site in June. "Devou Park has a residential element attached to it. Thus the residents have been complaining for some time about sexual activity.''

Covington residents, city officials and police say the Web site simply verifies what they've known for the past month. Since two uniformed rangers began regular patrols July 30, they say word has gotten around that Devou Park is no longer a "hot spot" to cruise for sex.

Covington police records show 37 calls for service to Devou Park in August 2002. During this past August, the park rangers' first full month on the job, authorities received 26 calls involving Devou Park. While the records do not specify which were for sexual activity - for example, a complaint may be for a suspicious person or vehicle - rangers are confident that the problem, which surfaced a few years ago, has dissipated.

"I think that's great," Covington Police Chief Tom Schonecker said of the Web site's warning. "This shows that the rangers are being effective, especially when it comes to addressing citizens' complaints."

Other local places the Web site lists are the restrooms of the Borders book store on Colerain Avenue and Hueston Woods State Park near Oxford.

Marge Palopoli, the manager of Borders, was baffled.

"One of my employees saw something on a Web site, but no one's complained to us about anyone approaching our customers,'' Palopoli said. "Our bookstore is one of the best for storytimes, and we have a great customer base. As far as I know, we haven't had any incidents. It bothers me that we're listed on that Web site.''

Lonnie Snow, manager for Hueston Woods State Park, said the same men tend to travel from one park to another soliciting sex. Snow said authorities there have reduced sexual activity by knocking down rundown restrooms. He said rangers also periodically do plainclothes details.

Neighbors of Devou Park say they're most upset by men who slowly drive from one parking area to another, soliciting sex from passersby. When someone accepts their offer, they disappear onto the wooded trails.

Joe Schamer's story is typical of many that Covington police and park rangers say they hear from residents.

Schamer, 52, and his wife, Cathy, visit Devou Park to walk their dogs. They want to be free to walk the trails without encountering men engaged in sex.

"I've noticed a significant improvement in the safety of the park since the rangers have been up there,'' the Kenton Hills resident said. "We're not seeing men parking and hanging out like we used to. Families are walking in the park more."

Covington natives Larry Ballinger, 53, and Bryan Vallandingham, 33, patrol the park 40 hours a week in a cruiser, on foot and in a golf cart. During their first month, the rangers say, they've varied their hours and work days in response to residents' complaints and special events.

In the past, neighbors of Devou Park have complained that men tended to cruise at the wooded Rotary Grove area and Prisoners Lake. Most of the parked cars have Ohio license plates.

"I've already gotten a number of positive comments about the rangers from residents, golfers and people working in the park," said Covington City Commissioner Alex Edmondson. Several months ago, he met with residents who were concerned about men soliciting other men.

Ballinger said that he and his partner believe they've stopped a couple of would-be sexual encounters in the park based on the suspicious behavior of the men they've approached.

Besides deterring sexual activity, Covington officials hope the rangers will help fight vandalism and deter drinking, littering and speeding. The rangers can cite offenders to Covington's code enforcement board for minor offenses. For more serious violations, the rangers radio for police.

The rangers say they grew up playing ball and attending concerts in Devou Park and want to keep it a family-friendly place. "I've got young grandkids, and the benchmark I use is, 'What do I want them to see in the park?''' Ballinger said.

E-mail cschroeder@enquirer.com




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Park's reputation undergoing change