Unpainting the Town

Armed with industrial-strength paint remover and blessed with a face that apparently melts into a crowd, a midnight marauder has targeted the ski town of Breckenridge where it hurts the most--right in the tourist industry. Breckenridge police call the culprit, who's been tossing batches of caustic liquid onto cars with out-of-state plates, "The Stripper." To a local newspaper editor, he's a "tourist-hating weasel." His other aliases, courtesy of local residents who've become absorbed with the serial sloshing case: "Jack the Dripper" and the "Tourist Terrorist."

During the past six weeks the vandal has slopped thirty cars with his paint-eating potion, causing what Breckenridge police chief Steve Annibali estimates is between $20,000 and $40,000 in damage. His tactics have earned him public condemnation and a $2,000 bounty on his head. But in some quarters, his monkey-wrenching campaign has garnered grudging respect.

The Stripper is selective in his choice of victims--all but two of the cars targeted bore license plates from Texas and California. (The only exceptions were two Colorado cars bearing out-of-county plates that had been parked overnight at a Frisco motel.)

"We obviously have a large tourist population from both those states," Annibali says, referring to the Stripper's fondness for defacing Texas and California vehicles. "One of the theories is that this person or persons does not like the increase in tourism here. There's always been a debate that tourism has driven up the cost of housing much too high."

The vandalism began on a Friday night six weeks ago, Annibali says. "The first week we had four occur. The following weekend we had six. That's when we realized it wasn't a one-time shot." Members of Annibali's nineteen-officer department sprang into action, beginning special surveillance duty that same week.

Using night-vision binoculars and decoy cars, cops watched the streets and parking lots where the Stripper had struck (most of which were a block or two off Main Street). But the dragnet failed to stop him before he spilled again. He doused a Jaguar. He splattered some four-wheel drive vehicles. He even went after what Annibali calls "some homely, older subcompacts." And he increased his range to include the nearby towns of Dillon and Silverthorne.

Two weeks ago, after deciding that police couldn't risk having more cars vandalized, Annibali switched to a high-visibility approach. The town of Breckenridge offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perp. Annibali got the National Insurance Crime Bureau to pony up a like amount. And he established a 24-hour hotline to take tips about the vandal.

There's always a certain amount of grumbling about tourists in resort towns, Annibali says. Eagle County residents and others have "commiserated together about damage to the environment or to the area," he notes, "and there's been talk in Summit County of groups complaining about it."

Just what touched off the Stripper's crime spree isn't known, but Annibali says he suspects it might be connected to an editorial written for The Summit Daily News by John Fayhee, editor of Summit Outdoors and Great Divide Magazine. Fayhee, a Breckenridge resident, has made his anti-development stance quite clear in a series of articles.

"He talked about some kind of meeting in Frisco where they encouraged people to be rude to tourists," Annibali says of the now-infamous Fayhee piece. "Right after [the article] came out, this happened. If nothing else, it brought attention to an issue that somebody already had a problem with. The bottom line is that we never had such an incident in all of Summit County before that."

Fayhee's editorial--which actually was published March 23, months before the Stripper first struck--was a tongue-in-cheek account of a meeting with members of a fictional group called the "Secret Order of the Scowl," or "S.O.S."

S.O.S. is "dedicated to the eradication of the tourist industry as we know it in Summit County," Fayhee quoted one member of the imaginary group as saying. "And the means we have chosen to cripple that blighted industry is by bringing meanness and incompetence into the tourist industry. We figure that, if we cause enough bad experiences on the part of our tourists, they will stop coming here. Only by assuring that tourists have as many bad experiences as possible can we hope to regain any semblance of sanity in Summit County."

Another of Fayhee's characters was quoted in the article as saying, "We don't need to have an economy designed to support every unimaginative Texan or Californian who wants to move to paradise and open some unneeded business."

Fayhee says Chief Annibali's theory that his article may have triggered the Stripper's rampage is ridiculous and adds that he doesn't approve of the vandal's methods. However, Fayhee isn't totally unsympathetic to the lacquer-attacker's cause.

"If you raise any concerns about tourism, you get labeled as subversive or anti-growth, all the kinds of things I think of as compliments," says Fayhee. "But that doesn't mean I condone what this guy is doing."

Besides, Fayhee adds, if the Stripper's motive is to stop growth, there are plenty of other, more deserving targets than cars belonging to unwary tourists. "I'd be happy to give him the name of some developers," Fayhee says.

And if the goal is to put a halt to tourism, the Stripper hasn't made much of a dent. "It's had very little impact on tourism," says a spokeswoman for the Summit County Chamber of Commerce. "It really hasn't been a big thing at all."

One reason may be that not all of the Stripper's victims were actually tourists. One of the first cars assaulted was a 1995 Toyota 4-Runner with Texas plates belonging to 22-year-old Weston Wicks, who works as a waiter at a Breckenridge restaurant.

"It was a Friday night," Wicks recalls. "I'd been at work, and I walked outside about 12:30 a.m. and I noticed something on my car. It looked like somebody had vomited on it. When I got home, I went out with buckets of water to wash it off. But it took the paint right off."

At first, Wicks says, he thought he had been targeted personally. But police told him he was only one of many victims. It cost $1,400 to paint over the damage, says Wicks, who notes, "I'm working on changing the plates."

Wicks says his friends are "disappointed" that anyone would go to such extremes to scare away tourists. According to Annibali, some other locals are outraged. But it took the hotline and the promise of a $2,000 reward to get the phones ringing with tips. The chief says his officers now have a number of leads to follow up, though they have yet to make an arrest.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the police crackdown may have thrown a scare into the Stripper, who these days can't be sure that the next car he chooses to drench won't be under surveillance by one of Annibali's SPLAT teams. Whether because of the increased police presence or because the Stripper was otherwise engaged, the weekend of August 16 and 17 marked the first time in six weeks that he didn't show.

Maybe, says a hopeful Annibali, "he got the publicity he wanted, and now there's no reason to continue on.

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