Park ranger Chris Cruz has guided a raft through some of the American West’s most treacherous whitewater, skied some of its loneliest back country slopes, and traversed some of its most rugged terrain, according to an online biography on the website of the college where he teaches.
But the wild ride he took with an unwelcome visitor to Lassen Volcanic National Park, while brief, will likely live on as one of his most memorable trips.
His account of the experience is contained in an affidavit from National Park Service Special Agent Steve Yu, which was filed in Sacramento federal court.
Cruz told Yu that he was almost killed on the night of June 20 by a man named Nicholas Martin Coberley, who launched a savage attack on him in his truck using firefighting tools.
Coberley, 44, was first charged by criminal complaint, and then in an indictment returned Thursday by a federal grand jury in Sacramento. He is accused in three felony counts of assault on a federal employee, assault on a federal employee with a deadly weapon, and destruction of government property. He faces a maximum 20 years in prison.
He pleaded not guilty Friday and is being held without bail in the Sacramento County jail by order of U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn K. Delaney, who found him to be dangerous. His next scheduled court appearance is a Sept. 27 status conference before U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez.
Coberley’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Defender Sean Riordan, declined to comment Monday.
In his interview with Yu, Cruz said the incident began about 9 p.m. June 20 with a knock on the door of Cruz’s quarters at the Warner Valley ranger station in a rural area of the Lassen park. Two park visitors had come to tell him about an apparently intoxicated man walking on a nearby road, yelling for help.
Cruz told Yu that he heard the yelling and urged the visitors to leave the area for their own safety. He turned out the lights in his quarters and watched out a window as the man walked past the station. He changed into the Park Service uniform of gray shirt and green pants and called a dispatcher for law enforcement backup.
Cruz, 58, was a full-time ranger for 18 years, then quit and became a college instructor, but still works as a seasonal ranger, according to biographical information on the West Valley College website. As a noncommissioned Park Service employee, Cruz no longer has police powers and cannot carry a gun, Yu wrote in the affidavit.
The ranger told Yu he climbed into a 2013 white Chevrolet Silverado extended cab pickup with a 4-inch-wide green reflective stripe down each side and the brown arrowhead Park Service logo on each door. On the front fenders are the words “Park Ranger” in 4-inch-high reflective letters.
It was a clear, cloudless night, and Cruz eased the truck in behind the man, who was barefoot, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, the ranger is quoted in the affidavit as saying. The man was walking down the middle of the unlit, unpaved road yelling loudly and gesturing with his arms.
The man was moving toward the Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a small, remote lodge that was at or near visitor capacity that night. Cruz told the agent he was concerned about the possible consequences if the man reached the ranch in what appeared to be an uncontrolled state, so he began to think about how to delay him.
Suddenly, the man left the road and tried to hide behind a tree, according to Cruz’s account. He put the truck’s spotlight on him, and the man rushed up to the vehicle with two questions: Was Cruz a cab driver and was Cruz “crazy,” the ranger related to Yu.
The man said he wanted to go to Drakesbad and leaped into the bed of the truck. Cruz wanted to get him away from the guest ranch and its visitors, and to close the distance between him and responding law enforcement officers, so he turned around and drove the other way at approximately 20 miles per hour until he crossed the park boundary, where the road turned to asphalt, and he picked up speed to approximately 30 miles per hour, Cruz recalled.
Meanwhile, the passenger was becoming increasingly agitated. He grabbed a firefighting tool called a “McLeod” from the bed of the truck, climbed onto the roof of the cab and began beating on the roof with the tool, Cruz told Yu. A McLeod resembles an enlarged rake, with a hoe-like blade on one side and heavy, sharp spikes on the other, and a long wooden handle.
The man struck the pickup’s windshield with the tool and the spikes penetrated and shattered the glass, Cruz remembered. The man lost possession of the tool when it got stuck in the truck’s hood vents and the handle broke.
The man climbed back down into the bed and seized another firefighting tool called a “Pulaski,” a short-handled ax with an arched, sharp cutting edge perpendicular to the handle on the other end of the head, according to Yu’s affidavit. He smashed out the truck’s back window with the tool, climbed into the vehicle’s rear passenger compartment and began choking Cruz.
Cruz tried to break the chokehold with one hand while desperately trying to keep the vehicle on the road with the other hand, he told Yu. The man swung the Pulaski at Cruz’s head, but the ranger anticipated his unstrung adversary and blocked the blow with his right hand, he recalled. Gripping the tool with his now lacerated hand, Cruz jerked it down to the floorboard and wrested it from the man’s grasp. The man warned Cruz that he had a knife and was prepared to use it.
At this point, they were face to face. The ranger smelled a heavy odor of alcohol on the man, and he began talking to him in a low, soothing voice, significantly quelling his rage, the affidavit says Cruz recalled.
Cruz told Yu that he turned the truck around and took the man to a home near the park boundary that the man said was his. The man got out of the truck and went to the residence.
Very soon, a small army of Plumas County sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and park rangers converged on the home and the man, who turned out to be Coberley, was arrested without incident, Cruz said.
The ranger estimated the entire incident lasted 15 to 20 minutes, but he said it seemed like a lifetime. Cruz emerged unscathed except for his cut hand, but the truck didn’t fare so well. The roof was punctured in at least three places and the windshield and rear window were gone.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189