A series of highway robberies has once again hit Park County. These heists have not quite had the high dollar figure of the robbery on the South Fork some weeks ago, but the ultimate cost could be much higher.

Bandits have struck Park County government again, this time damaging or relieving County Road 1XG near Frannie of all its signage. Monument Hill Road, off Highway 120 N between Cody and Clark, had similar thefts and damages.

Road signs disappearing or being damaged are not a new phenomenon in Park County. Signs have often been used for target practice or taken for decoration, but Park County Engineer Brian Edwards said the last year has been worse than usual.

“The theft, the knocking signs over, there’s always been a little of that,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s COVID-related, but the last six months to maybe the last year, there’s definitely been an uptick.”

Since March of last year, the Sheriff’s Office reports at least 55 signs have been stolen, and another 28 pieces of equipment like cones or posts have also been taken. Another 18 signs have been damaged. The bulk of the thefts and vandalism were concentrated between December of 2020 and March.

The Enterprise’s “Almanac” section has tracked the sign thefts over the last year. The bulk of the thefts in that timeframe, as reported by the Sheriff’s Office in its media blotter, occurred in the Powell area on rural roads between Powell and Ralston. Many of the thefts occurred in the vicinity of Lane 6 and Road 11.

The Sheriff’s Office is investigating the theft and vandalism of the signs. It is not clear if all the thefts around the county are connected. Sheriff Scott Steward said his office believes the Powell thefts to be connected at this point, but did not know if the Cody-area thefts were connected to those in Powell.

Nearly $2,000 worth of signs has been stolen or damaged since December of last year. That could result in felony theft charges for the person or people who have committed the thefts if they were all committed by the same people.

No laughing matter

“It’s a very dangerous endeavor, what they’re doing with the signs,” Steward said. “We talked about this before: You’re putting the citizens at risk when you’re removing the caution signs and stop signs.”

While stealing road signs may seem like a relatively harmless crime, Steward said there could also be far more serious charges. An alleged sign theft in the ’90s led to the deaths of three teenagers. Three Florida residents, all 19-20 years old, were initially convicted of manslaughter in 1997 – the conviction was later reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct – when three teenagers were killed while going through an intersection where the trio had allegedly stolen the signs.

“It’s very, very fact specific,” said Park County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jack Hatfield. “What was the individual’s intent when they stole the sign? What was the result of that? Could we prove that the missing sign was the cause of serious bodily harm or death?

“This is just one of those things that, in a vacuum, I could come up with just about every scenario you could think of, but you could never know until it actually occurs.”

Other challenges from stealing road signs exist as well. For example, stealing informational signs, such as those with street names on them, could keep emergency services from reaching the scene in time, Edwards said.

“As far as a little bit of fun of shooting or vandalizing or stealing, I think the cost to public safety is too great for something like that,” Edwards said. “If somebody gets seriously injured or, worse, killed because of something as silly as taking a sign or moving it or turning it around, that would be hard for that person to live with.”

The Sheriff’s Office and local donors have put together a reward of up to $2,000 for information that leads to an arrest for these so-called “sign bandits.” If you know anything about the thefts, you are encouraged to contact the Sheriff’s Office at (307) 527-8700 or (307) 754-8700.

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