Calif. police make a stink to roust criminals

Synthetic gel renders buildings uninhabitable


COMPTON, CALIF. — COMPTON, Calif.- A small posse of sheriff's deputies has unleashed a new weapon in the war on crime.

It is remarkably small, improbably inexpensive and stunningly low-tech. And for the past seven months, it has proved effective - so effective that Lt. Shaun Mathers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department wonders why more departments have not realized that such a tool might be right under their noses.

"I was kind of grousing with some friends," he said. "What could we do to make our officers more visible in the community? And someone said, `Maybe we could use a good odor, like fresh-baked cookies.' As I was driving home, it struck me. Maybe there's a value in a bad odor."

That value, Mathers thought, would be in clearing out the vacant buildings that become magnets for prostitutes, drug dealers and gangs. After a few experiments with chemical stink bombs, he and Deputy Scott Gage found a petroleum-based gel called SkunkShot on the Internet. "It's pretty weird," Gage said, "but it's brilliant."

The Skunk Squad was born.

The squad's first success, Mathers says, came last spring on Long Beach Boulevard.

"There was an old vacant bungalow-style motel which is in a heavily populated prostitute area," he said. "People were coming and going to use narcotics. One part of it had even burned down because they were using candles to light the place."

One day in May, the deputies took several small $15 tubes of SkunkShot and spread them around the building, which they had just cleared of the drug users and prostitutes. Several hours later, Mathers was amazed to find no one there.

"It's horrible, just unbearable for two days," he said of the odor. "After five or six days you can still smell it. We even got in a battle of smells with the folks there. They were bringing cans of Glade and scented candles, but that stuff just can't compete."

The inventor of SkunkShot, an Australian named Andrew Rakich, is a laser and satellite engineer by trade. He said he thought of the idea 10 years ago as a sort of aerosol for women to use to fend off attackers or as an animal repellent for gardeners.

The product is synthetic, but chemically its components mimic a skunk's musk.

"We're certainly not milking skunks," Rakich said in an interview. "That would be one of the worst jobs in the world. I've never even actually seen a skunk myself, but we're all aware of them down here, thanks to Pepe Le Pew."

Rakich said a gel using the scent of cat urine was being tested.

Though the gel is a serious crime-fighting tool, occasionally it is used for practical jokes.

"That's one of the reasons we keep it on the down-low," Gage said. "You know those push-down soap dispensers? Well, allegedly someone put some of the product in one of those in the men's bathroom."

The product was put to a more official use on a recent sunny afternoon in Compton after three sheriff's cruisers converged on a dilapidated apartment complex.

The deputies first found a contractor who said he was taking photographs for the bank that owns the property. Next to emerge were three bedraggled men and a woman clutching a kitten she called Sylvester.

One of the men, who would not give his name, said he had stopped by to check on a relative. "I got family here," he said, "But I wish they'd skunk the place so my people will leave and get themselves together."

The woman, Tammy Clarke, 39, said she was a mother of 12.

"Instead of putting drugs around my sister or my kids," she said, "I prefer to be out here."

Still, she says she can understand why the police would want to keep people out. "It will make it safer here, but it won't make it safer on the street for us."

After giving Clarke time to find her two other kittens, Garfield and Tweety, Deputy Dan Drysol put on two pairs of latex gloves and headed into the first of the vacant buildings. There, among the crack vials, pornography, mattresses and candle-scorched floors, he spread the gel. Immediately, the rank smell of human waste was overtaken by the eye-watering stench of the SkunkShot.

"You think it's bad now," said Drysol. "In an hour it will be unbearable."

After leaving the complex, the deputies checked an apartment building where they had deployed the SkunkShot weeks earlier. The place remained vacant, and the upstairs apartments were being renovated.

Deputy Matt Vanderhorck says a cascade of crime is avoided by keeping people out of vacant buildings.

"It's not just the people trespassing. If they had never pulled the boards down and used this place to live, those guys never would have cut their dope open and the hookers wouldn't use this place as their hotel," he said of the first apartment complex.

"And of course it really affects the people who live around here. I mean, there's a nice little house across the street and then this place."

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