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Santa Barbara’s Top Cops

Committed to becoming a cop at an early age, Santa Barbara police Sgt. Noel Rivas is inspiring others to fulfill their own dreams.

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Every day in Santa Barbara County, hundreds of men and women leave the safety of their own homes to go to work protecting us. These unsung heroes of law enforcement put their lives on the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure our community’s cherised quality of life.

Santa Barbara’s Top Cops, featured over the course of the past two weeks, is a collection of Noozhawk profiles featuring 10 men and women who excel at protecting and serving our community. From diverting suicide attempts, to dealing with horrifying alcohol-related vehicle collisions, to perilous water rescues, these are only a few of the routine emergency calls these officers are trained to face daily.

What makes this list extraordinary is the extent to which many go above and beyond the call of duty to make a difference in special areas of expertise like marijuana eradication, underage drinking, driving under the influence and sexual assaults.

Please follow along as Noozhawk highlights Santa Barbara’s Top Cops.

•      •      •

At the age of 8, Noel Rivas already knew he wanted a career as a police officer. Due in part to his pride in his Mexican heritage and a work ethic instilled in him by his father, Santa Barbara police Sgt. Noel Rivas is living a life meant just for him.

“I made the choice to be a police officer when a motor cop came to Harding Elementary when I was 8,” Rivas recalled. “I saw the uniform and the motorcycle and instantly felt the calling.”

Setting his sights on a life in law enforcement early on has served him well. And the same inspiration he got from that motorcycle officer is what he’s passing on to others in our community.

“I really believe the youth of our community is our treasured future,” said Rivas, highlighted by Noozhawk as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops.

For more than 20 years in law enforcement, the majority of his meaningful moments have revolved around the children with whom he’s worked.

“My first aha! moment came when I was sitting in a class at Santa Barbara City College and I recognized a girl," he said. "She was someone I dealt with a lot when I was working the department’s gang unit.

“She told me I was a big reason for her life changing, and when I met her mom, (her mother) told me I was the reason (her daughter) was going to college,” Rivas added.

Inspired by Rivas, the once troubled teen was graduating from SBCC and heading to Cal State Northridge, he recalled.{mosimage}

In an effort to reach Santa Barbara’s youth, Rivas has played an active role as an officer for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. He personally has taught more than 1,800 children that a life of drugs and gangs is a no-win situation.

One D.A.R.E. graduate, now a pre-med student at UC Berkeley, recently told Rivas that she holds close to her the messages he taught when she was a fifth-grader at San Roque School.

Equally satisfying for Rivas has been his success developing and running the Santa Barbara Police Department’s Hispanic Outreach Program. One element of the program is a 12-week class, called the Spanish Language Community Academy, in which participants discover Santa Barbara law enforcement is here to protect them regardless of their legal status.

“Many (Spanish Language Community Academy graduates) came from countries where cops were not trusted,” acknowledged Rivas, who earned a degree in Chicana and Chicano Studies from UCSB.

“The majority of the Hispanic community, including those undocumented, want to do the right thing," he said. "They want a better life in this country and for their kids to seek out and live the American dream.”

Despite a busy work schedule with rotating shifts, Rivas, who is currently a patrol supervisor for SBPD’s Patrol Division, finds time to share his inspiration with his wife and his two toddlers, too.

It’s all in a day’s work for an exemplary police officer equally committed to his job and to his family, as well as to his community.

•      •      •

For previous Noozhawk profiles of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops, read below.

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Thursday: UCSB police Cpl. Dan Wilson

It was just before 10 p.m. on Sept. 17 when the UCSB Police Department was notified of a traffic collision on campus. At this complex accident, one of the first officers to arrive on the scene, Cpl. Dan Wilson, took control of the situation as lead investigator.

At the campus’ East Gate that night, Wilson learned the female driver, uninjured in the collision, had mistakenly entered campus when, making an illegal U-turn, she maneuvered her car into the path of a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist was killed by the impact.

Wilson’s outstanding performance in this case, and his commitment to serving UCSB, is one of the reasons he is being profiled by Noozhawk as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops.

“Cpl. Wilson was one of the first officers on the scene of the traffic collision at UCSB’s East Gate. He took control of the situation and directed the investigation and eventual arrest of the suspect,” a supervisor wrote in a review of Wilson.

“His personal pride and dedication were evident throughout his completion of the report and exemplified by his special attention to detail," the report continued. "Cpl. Wilson coordinated the assistance of the California Highway Patrol and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.”

Wilson’s performance in that highly sensitive traffic collision mirrors another outstanding arrest, equally important, he made previously in his law-enforcement career. Single-handedly, Wilson captured a wanted murder suspect from the Los Angeles area. After turning over the criminal to authorities in Los Angeles, Wilson was recognized by officers locally and outside Santa Barbara for the removal of the extremely dangerous individual.

Excelling in his duties on these high-profile assignments is as important to the South Coast community as is his partnership with the team of officers at the UCSB Police Department. UCSB police officers, like Wilson, remain dedicated to patrolling the campus around the clock on foot, bicycle and in motor vehicles while responding to crimes, injuries, illnesses, fires and other emergencies.

There is no question, with his commitment to his chosen profession, Wilson will continue striving to keep UCSB safe for students and visitors alike.

•      •      •

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Wednesday: Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Sgt. Ed Stetson

When you ask Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Sgt. Ed Stetson what attracts him to his profession, most likely he’ll tell you it’s the variety.

Stetson remembers well his first month on the job, 23 years ago.

“During my first month of work,” he recalled, “we had a wharf fire, a major vessel collision, a drowning, numerous boat tows, some emergency medical calls and a couple of arrests.

“There was never one single point that I knew this was the career for me. With each call, I realized just how fortunate I was to have this job. There was excitement and variety.”

But Stetson, profiled by Noozhawk as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops, admits it’s a job he needed to carve out for himself. A job, he explains, he helped turn into a career. Prior to 1985, the average employment with the Harbor Patrol lasted about three years.

“In 1985, I successfully negotiated public safety status for the Harbor Patrol. This literally changed the position form a job to a career,” he said.

Also clear to Stetson is that while he is an armed peace officer, law enforcement is only a portion of his job. Harbor Patrol deals with most of the law-enforcement calls within the harbor district, he explains, but the patrol also depends on the Santa Barbara Police Department when needed.

“In a sense we are jacks-of-all-trades,” he said about his team at the Harbor. “(We are) marine firefighters, ocean search and rescue, medics, lifeguards, Coast Guard-licensed boat captains, tow boat operators and marina managers.”

Stetson, a scuba instructor at UCSB for the past 28 years, is quick to acknowledge the importance of teamwork at the Harbor Patrol.

“Every officer comes to this job with their own unique specialty. All the different specialties of each officer comes together and we form a very unique, well-balanced and strong team,” said Stetson, himself a specialist in scuba diving and marine mammal rescue.

Because there is no formal academy for aspiring Harbor Patrol officers, employees are expected to attend a variety of courses on their own.

To hear Stetson describe the harbor is to capture a glimpse of a life, and lifestyle, many may never know. Maintaining a safe environment in the harbor community is something he can be rightly proud of.

“The harbor is a very unique area. It can almost be called a city within a city,” he said. “There are commercial fishermen working among the pleasure boaters; people who live on their boats; travelers who top off on their voyages; restaurants and businesses; tourists.

"Crime is relatively low at the harbor. People are generally very good about looking after each other and their property of others," he added. "It is a little community, and people are proud of the harbor.”

•      •      •

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Tuesday: Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Motor Deputy Win Smith

It was five years ago, and it also was the first day the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department was responsible for traffic investigations in the city of Goleta. Similarly, it was seasoned Deputy Win Smith’s first day assigned to the traffic bureau.

“It started with a bang — literally,” Smith said of that day, a day he remembers as if it were yesterday.

“The day began with a broadside injury collision at Calle Real and Mendocino Drive, a location I have been back to many times since,” he recounted. “My partner and I had been on the scene for about two minutes when a bicyclist who was not paying attention where he was going nearly killed himself by rear-ending a parked truck on Whittier Drive.

"We had no sooner finished at the scene with those collisions when we got another call of an injury at Stow Canyon Road and Carlo Drive. A pretty nicely restored 1960s Mustang was totaled in that collision,” he said.

“Before we finished cleaning up that scene we got a call of a major injury collision, with one vehicle on fire and people trapped inside. That crash turned out to be just outside the Goleta city limits, so the CHP handled the investigation. But we were hammered with calls like that all day,” he recalled, “and I loved it!”

It was that level of excitement and enthusiasm shared by Smith and his partners that helped build the department’s first traffic bureau. The bureau now has the capability of investigating collisions using energy-efficient light bars, radars, lasers, motorcycles, Driving Under the Influence checkpoint trailers, and collision diagramming software.

“It used to be all a deputy sheriff needed to know about traffic was how to call CHP. That’s certainly not the case anymore,” said Smith, who estimates the bureau has investigated thousands of collisions.

In addition to his regular motor deputy duties, with the encouragement of his partner, Deputy George Deluca, Smith has been partly responsible for the success of Avoid the 12, a campaign to crackdown on impaired drivers.

“After three years, I’m starting to see some results from my efforts,” Smith said. “For example, between Dec. 14 and Jan. 1, Avoid the 12 joined with law-enforcement agencies all over the state in an all-out assault on DUI drivers. Our tactics were to maximize enforcement and public awareness of the DUI problem.”

Over the recent holiday period, Santa Barbara County had an increase in DUI arrests, and there were 48 more DUI arrests in 2007 than 2006. Meanwhile, DUI-related collisions decreased to 11 in 2007 from 22.

“That’s what Avoid the 12 is all about. And it’s rewarding to finally see some results,” said Smith, a self-admitted “workaholic” who, outside of fixing up his house and worshiping God, regularly spends much of his off-duty time doing job-related projects.

With more than 25 years in law enforcement, and still as enthusiastic as if it were his first day on the job, it’s safe to say Smith has an infectious passion for his line of work. It a passion and dedication that made him worthy of inclusion by Noozhawk as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops.

“It may sound a bit macabre, but I love going to scenes with crashed cars, injured people, leaking vehicle fluids, snarled traffic, and people wandering around wondering what to do,” he said. “I get the opportunity to bring order to chaos, to talk to real everyday people not just crooks, drug users and wife-beaters. I get to use science and math, as well as people’s statements, to prove what happened.

"And at traffic collisions, I almost always get the opportunity to help people.”

•      •      •

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Monday: California Highway Patrol Capt. Jeff Sgobba

Sure, he’d worked other fatal collisions and DUI arrests. But this accident allowed California Highway Patrol Capt. Jeff Sgobba to see firsthand the devastation of an innocent family caused by a drunken driver.

Sgobba, selected by Noozhawk as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops, was recounting an evening 23 years ago that has stuck with him throughout his career, forever securing his decision on a life in law enforcement. It is a decision that has carried him all the way to his current position as the CHP‘s Santa Barbara area captain.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Sgobba said. “A family was driving home from an evening church service on Highway 1 on Point Mugu military base when they were struck head-on by a DUI driver.”

By the time he and his partner arrived on the scene, the father had died, the mother and 5-year-old son were seriously injured, and the 9-year-old, being comforted by a witness, was shaking uncontrollably outside the car.

“It was then that I committed myself to doing everything in my power to remove impaired drivers from the road before they could cause the same destruction that I had just witnessed,” Sgobba said.

And it’s this commitment, with the help of his local team of CHP officers, that has helped reduce fatal collisions in the Santa Barbara area by 46 percent in 2007. According to statistics collected by the CHP, six fewer people were killed in the region in 2007 compared to 2006. An accomplishment, Sgobba noted, that has been achieved only three times over the past 20 years.

“He’s the kind of leader that many of us strive to be,” said CHP Officer Don Clotworthy, the department spokesman.

Aiding in his commitment to keep our roads safe, Sgobba has been involved in several traffic safety programs over the years.

“(My) goal being to prevent collisions by educating drivers of all ages that making one mistake in judgment while driving a vehicle can change your life forever,” said Sgobba, an avid baseball fan whose father is a major league baseball scout currently working with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Sgobba is quick to acknowledge his entire team of men and women working to save lives and helping the Santa Barbara office run smoothly.

“It’s (them),” said the humbled Sgobba, “that should be recognized.”

•      •      •

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Feb. 8: Santa Barbara police Chief Cam Sanchez

American poet Henry Longfellow once said, “Youth comes but once in a lifetime.” And after speaking with Santa Barbara police Chief Cam Sanchez, you learn — to him — our youth are worth protecting.

“My biggest struggles in Santa Barbara — something that is bothering me the most — are gang issues. The gang members in Santa Barbara are getting young and younger — 14, 15 and 16. We see (our youth) sucked into this negative lifestyle and it breaks my heart,” Sanchez said with a sigh.

It’s very clear to Sanchez, SBPD‘s chief since 2000 and selected by Noozhawk as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops, that youth does only come once in a lifetime. Sadly, some of our youth are choosing to spend their time climbing the ranks within the gang community.

Heightened security and police presence on State Street during high school minimum days are just one of many efforts, backed by Sanchez, that the SBPD is taking to combat the trend. Media junkies will recall seeing images of Sanchez among other law-enforcement personnel, patrolling sensitive areas in Santa Barbara last month.

It’s not a new concept to Sanchez. In fact, he’s been dedicated to the mission for years.

It’s possible an experience 20 years ago many have laid the foundation for a career in protecting our community, and more specifically, our youth. Sanchez was working a mistaken-identity homicide as a Los Angeles police officer. A young man, 19, was returning to his car after dropping off his date when a couple of men pulled a gun and shot him dead. Notifying the family of their son’s murder was part of his assignment.

“It was a horrible experience telling (the family) that their eldest son had just been murdered,” Sanchez recalled. “The mother she screamed and cried into my shoulder. I remember it was really early in the morning and I sat in their kitchen for hours as we drank coffee and talked about life.

“For that moment,” he added, “ I wasn’t an officer, I was a friend. It was an honor to be there for this young man and his family in their time of need. That was one of my aha! moments.”

When not working, Sanchez spends his time writing.

“Writing is a great hobby and stress reliever,” he explained.

He is currently working on two books. The first, which he is already halfway through, is a mystery novel. The second is a textbook on leadership, a topic he clearly knows something about.

•      •      •

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Feb. 7: Santa Barbara police Sgt. Marty Ensign

An attempt to identify one experience that encapsulates the breadth of Santa Barbara police Sgt. Marty Ensign’s law-enforcement career is tough. And understandably so, considering he has been a police officer for more than 20 years.

“I really can’t remember just one incident that grasped me … there have been many incidents. Many absolutely sorrowful, many absolutely wonderful,” he said.

“All the experiences have had a cumulative effect on me,” said Ensign, who on his days off spends his time playing with his 5-month-old puppy, Milo.

To give an example of the eclectic mix of cases he’s worked, Ensign highlights a few of his most poignant.

He’s investigated fatal traffic collisions in which innocent, unwitting people lose their lives “and then (I) contemplate the unfathomable loss that family must feel,” he recalled. He’s delved into a child molestion case and put forth every effort in supporting the victim and securing a conviction of the suspect. He’s worked a suspicious death case in which he’s felt angst at not being able to prove or disprove whether the death was a result of foul play.

All along while working these cases Ensign said he intermittently realizes “or reaffirms that most people are supportive of cops and the work we do.”

Having exposure to such varied situations — seeing the best and worst Santa Barbara has to offer — Ensign can clearly see areas of concern.{mosimage}

“I can tell you, empirically, that it seems Santa Barbara is experiencing a plague of gang-related violence. Personally, I find the recent trend in violent crimes perpetrated by our youth and gang-involved offenders both saddening and infuriating,” said Ensign, one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops in a series of Noozhawk profiles.

“To see people stabbing and killing each other merely because they live on the other side of town is ludicrous and appalling," he said. "This is not a race issue, it’s a cultural issue. And until we stop pointing an accusatory finger at one another, and stop beating around the bush on the issue, we will fail at our attempts to find answers, come up with effective solutions, and curtail this trend.”

Locally raised, Ensign is quick to share that his life prior to joining SBPD was equally important in shaping his dedication to a life in law enforcement. While he never left California during his four-year enlistment with the Marines, he says it was a good experience and he’s “damn proud to be a former Marine.”

“I can tell you that I absolutely love my job,” Ensign said, “and feel grateful for this responsibility that has been bestowed upon me; especially because I grew up in the Santa Barbara area and my entire family remains here.”

•      •      •

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Feb. 6: Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Koopmans

Orchestrating a successful marijuana eradication program does not come easily. Resources like funding are needed, as is cohesive coordination between other branches of law enforcement, including such diverse agencies as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting task force.

Carefully tending to the dynamic, multifaceted marijuana eradication machine is Lt. Eric Koopmans of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department‘s Special Operations Division — one reason Koopmans is being highlighted as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops.

The numbers are staggering. In the past, on average, the county annually eradicated up to 30,000 illegal marijuana plants. But 2007 was a record-breaking year, with nearly 200,000 marijuana plants located and destroyed. In terms of street value for the illegal drug, that amounts to more than $630 million.

The jump in marijuana plants destroyed in 2007 is so phenomenal, Koopmans said, that Santa Barbara County ranked second in California as having the most improved marijuana eradication program. It’s a feat, Koopmans added, that his team is very proud of.

“Nearly all of the illegal gardens had evidence indicating Mexican nationals were responsible," he explained. "A large amount of the ($630.4 million) would have gone to Mexico to aid in manufacturing methamphetamine, which is then smuggled into the United States.

“Due to the amounts of plants eradicated in Santa Barbara County in 2007, we anticipate receiving additional grant funds for 2008,” he added.

While tending to the well-oiled marijuana eradication program, Koopmans finds serenity enjoying the outdoors, skiing and boating with his family.

But his successes haven’t come solely from securing resources for the marijuana eradication efforts. In fact, he recalls his most rewarding time of his 25 years in law enforcement, thus far, was working as a detective and developing an expertise for investigating sex crimes against children.

“I have lost count of all the suspects I have arrested for various crimes throughout the years,” Koopmans said.
“But I remember every child molester I locked up.”

•      •      •

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Feb. 5: Sheriff’s Senior Deputy Sandra Brown

Most people know underage drinking and other alcohol-related crimes are commonly associated with college communities. It’s no secret.

But what many may not know is that, while Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Senior Deputy Sandra Brown was managing a grant for alcohol control in Isla Vista, statistics proved a handful of programs implemented during her supervision significantly changed the party scene in the college town.

“The (Alcoholic Beverage Control) grant allowed us to design and implement a proactive way of alcohol enforcement,” Brown explained. “We began increasing enforcement at the point of alcoholic beverage purchase, arresting minors in possession, arresting minors purchasing alcohol and adults purchasing alcohol for minors.”

Also held accountable are businesses selling to minors, as are the party hosts of soirees — á la Animal House — for providing alcohol to minors.

“When we did stats for the grant we discovered an over 80-percent decrease in keg sales, over 70-percent decrease in sexual assaults, and over a 50-percent decrease in crimes against persons,” she said.

“I’m not sure that all the students supported our efforts but I know we saved a lot of them from becoming victims of crime and, for that, I am proud,” said Brown, highlighted by Noozhawk as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops.

“All of us at Foot Patrol really felt like we made an impact and made a difference that continues today in that community,” she added.

Now that Brown is working in Buellton, she has shifted her focus to alcohol education and enforcement at wineries — replicating the program of change she developed in Isla Vista.

Winery staff and owners are now educated on laws pertaining to the Alcohol Beverage Control license through a class developed by the Sheriff’s Department and taught by Brown. The class explores alcohol laws, fake identification, privileges of the ABC license, and the signs and symptoms of intoxication.

“Since developing and implementing the class, I have educated staff in over 40 wineries in Santa Barbara County,” Brown estimated. “Through this continued education and the open communication we have with the winemakers, we will be able to address future and present problems with no negative community impact.”

With the growing popularity of Santa Barbara County’s wine industry, the number of alcohol licenses issued for tasting rooms has soared. Currently, the county has the fourth largest number of winemaker alcohol licenses in California.

“With the increase in wineries we have an increased potential of alcohol-related crimes," Brown said. "Instead of waiting … the Sheriff’s Department has worked proactively with the wineries and ABC in fixing issues before they become a problem.”

Helping communities remain safe through proactive measures, regardless if she’s working in a college community or the wine country, seems to be the thread of success Brown takes wherever she goes — along with her sketch pad.

So far, crime related to wineries is nonexistent, reports Senior Deputy Sandra Brown, a painter and sculptor.

“And,” she added, “our goal is (that such a crime increase) will never exist because of the hard work by the wineries and the Sheriff’s Department.”

•      •      •

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Feb. 4: State Park Ranger Scott Anderson

It was a call most would hate to receive.

State Park Ranger Scott Anderson, who was working the night shift at El Capitan State Beach, was dispatched to find a suicidal woman. A family member from Los Angeles reported that the woman intended to kill herself and was possibly located at El Capitan, 17 miles west of Santa Barbara.

“I knew the clock may be ticking and that I had to find her fast. Since I didn’t know the means by which she was going to kill herself, I was very cautious in looking for her, keeping in mind it was 10 p.m. and dark,” Anderson recalled.

“I walked down by the beach and I could barely make out a silhouette sitting …,” he said. “By the time I had found her, she had taken half a bottle of sleep medication … I continued to talk to her and reassure her I was there to help her. As I was talking to her, she told me her plan was to take enough sleeping pills to where she would pass out on the beach and wait for the incoming tide to pick her up and drown her in her sleep.”

Calling for help, Anderson handed over the woman to the Mental Health Assessment Team, which eventually returned her to Los Angeles for treatment. A couple of weeks following the incident, he received a voicemail from the woman whose life he’d saved.

“She thanked me several times for saving her life and said that I was right, she said, she did have a loving family and a reason to live,” Anderson said.

That voicemail reminded Anderson why he does what he does, and why he does his job so well. It comes as no surprise to his superiors why Noozhawk chose to highlight him as one of Santa Barbara’s Top Cops.

“As a state park ranger, Scott is a great example of not only a proficient law-enforcement officer, but also a balanced, generalist ranger,” said Channel Coast acting Superintendent Danita Rodriquez.

Aside from saving lives, the avid hunter and fisherman also finds enjoyment in daily tasks like securing the safety of all who visit the Santa Barbara sector, which includes El Capitan and Refugio state beaches and Gaviota State Park. Needing constant attention in the region, Anderson points out, is the issue of underage drinking and driving while intoxicated.

“With several colleges in the area, we get a lot of college kids who come to the park to camp," Anderson said. "Throughout the summer, I repeatedly hear from them that they come here to drink because they don’t think anyone will harass them since they are not in the public.”

Anderson is quick to point out that officers working the Santa Barbara area write more minor in possession and driving while intoxicated tickets than any other citation throughout the year.

“We get several DUI arrests every year with the common excuse being, they thought it would be OK to drink and drive since they weren’t out on the highway,” he said, adding that roads inside state parks are a continuation of state highways, “so all laws of the highway apply within state parks as well.”

To be a state park ranger requires the multifaceted talents of somebody like Scott Anderson. And with a ranger like Anderson protecting our safety at state beaches and parks, we’re privileged to enjoy the beauty of these pristine areas.

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