What's That Skunky Smell? It's Crime Fightingin a Gel

NATIONAL DESK | December 7,2003, Sunday





A small posse of sheriff's deputies inCompton has unleashed a new weapon in the war on crime.


It is remarkably small, improbablyinexpensive, stunningly low-tech and for the last seven months hasproved incredibly effective. So effective in fact, that Lt. ShaunMathers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department wonders whymore departments have not realized that such a tool might be rightunder their noses.





''I was kind of grousing with some friends,''he said. ''What could we do to make our officers more visible in thecommunity? And someone said, 'Maybe we could use a good odor, likefresh baked cookies.' As I was driving home, it struck me. Maybethere's a value in a bad odor.''


That value, Lieutenant Mathers thought, wouldbe in clearing out the vacant buildings that become magnets forprostitutes, drug dealers and gangs. After a few experiments withchemical stink bombs, he and Deputy Scott Gage found apetroleum-based gel called SkunkShot on the Internet. ''It's prettyweird,'' Deputy Gage said, ''but it's brilliant.''


And the Skunk Squad was born.


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


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


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


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


The inventor of SkunkShot, an Australiannamed Andrew Rakich, is a laser and satellite engineer by trade. Hesaid he thought of the idea 10 years ago as a sort of aerosol forwomen to use to fend off attackers or as an animal repellent forgardeners.


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


''We're certainly not milking skunks,'' Mr.Rakich said in a telephone interview. ''That would be one of theworst jobs in the world. I've never even actually seen a skunkmyself, but we're all aware of them down here thanks to PepéLe Pew.''


Mr. Rakich said a gel using the scent of caturine was being tested.


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


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


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


The deputies first found a contractor whosaid he was taking photographs for the bank that owns the property.Next to emerge were three bedraggled men and a woman clutching akitten 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 leaveand get themselves together.''


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


''Instead of putting drugs around my sisteror my kids,'' she said, ''I prefer to be out here.''


Still, she says she can understand why thepolice 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 Ms. Clarke time to find her twoother kittens, Garfield and Tweety, Deputy Dan Drysol put on twopairs of latex gloves and headed into the first of the vacantbuildings. There, among the crack vials, pornography, mattresses andcandle-scorched floors, he spread the gel. Immediately, the ranksmell of human waste was overtaken by the eye-watering stench of theSkunkShot. ''You think it's bad now,'' said Deputy Drysol, ''in anhour it will be unbearable.''


After leaving the complex, the deputieschecked out an apartment building where they had deployed theSkunkShot weeks earlier. The place remained vacant, and the upstairsapartments were being renovated.


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


''It's not just the people trespassing. Ifthey had never pulled the boards down and used this place to live,those guys never would have cut their dope open and the hookerswouldn't use this place as their hotel,'' he said of the firstapartment complex. ''And of course it really affects the people wholive around here. I mean, there's a nice little house across thestreet and then this place.''



Images: Photos: ''It's pretty weird,'' adeputy said of the smelly gel, ''but it's brilliant.''; Deputies DanDrysol and Brad Molner spread skunk gel on the wall of an abandonedhouse in Compton, Calif., to keep vagrants away. (Photographs byMonica Almeida/ The New York Times)


Correction: December 10, 2003, Wednesday


An article on Sunday about the use of anodor, SkunkShot, in vacant Los Angeles buildings that are magnets forcrime gave a misspelled surname in some copies for a sheriff's deputywho used it in Compton. He is Dan Drysol, not Brysol.