Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Wayward alligator is L.A.'s newest star


LOS ANGELES -- Forget the car chases. Forget the shootouts. Forget the lions and bears running amok in the urban landscape.

Los Angeles has a new marquee attraction: Reggie the alligator, a 7-foot-long public menace that was illegally set loose in a 53-acre city lake last fall.

It was Day 308 as of yesterday in the hunt for Reggie, and the city has just about had enough with the elusive gator.

Any day now, Reggie is expected to emerge from hibernation, and the Los Angeles City Council will then welcome its fourth gator wrangler in the quest to remove the reptilian scourge and put it in the zoo where a better home awaits.

So far, 10 men from three outfits have been unable to catch him. It's a local laugher. Steve Irwin, the colorful Australian "Crocodile Hunter" from TV, is on deck as the next hunter who will stake his reputation, at no charge, on capturing Reggie, officials said.

Wherever Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn goes, Reggie is the talk of the town.

"All these important things I've done in my political career, every one, it doesn't matter. Distinguished doctors ... at the grocery store, I'm getting my hair done, I was at my son's graduation at Pepperdine a couple of Saturdays ago - people were coming up to me and asking, 'How's Reggie?'

"Running the second-largest city in the country, all I'm going to be known for is, 'Where's Reggie?'" said Hahn, 54, whose district includes Lake Machado, where the alligator is living. She's from a prominent political family and her older brother, James, recently served as the mayor.

Gators thriving beside people in urban environments is nothing new. Witness Florida.

But here in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, an alligator with Reggie's staying power is a sensation - and a threat to public safety. Reggie's endurance stands in contrast to how a smaller, second gator, 3 feet in length, was quickly caught last year in what officials believe was a simultaneous abandonment; it was named Reggie Jr.

Officials fear the gator may eat a child or harm an adult, so they have installed a bright orange fence around much of the lakeshore, with signs about "alligator sightings in this area!" in English and Spanish.

Once Reggie resurfaces, officials expect another round of residents flocking to the lake to watch the hunt, joined by TV satellite trucks and helicopters.

It all began when the alligator grew too big for a backyard and was cast away, allegedly by two men who lived in Los Angeles' coastal San Pedro community.

Since Reggie was first spotted in the lake by a city gardener Aug. 12, the animal developed a following.

Two children's books have been written about Reggie.

The adjacent Los Angeles Harbor College, one of the city's nine community colleges, has adopted Reggie as its second mascot.

Reggie T-shirts and caps are sold.

And some started a "Free Reggie" movement, saying the gator shouldn't be caught.

Frustrated wranglers have been left snapping at each other. One Louisiana hunter, Thomas "T-Bone" Quinn, who had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, called rivals from Florida "retarded" last year. One of the Floridians called him a "swamp rat."

In all, the city has spent at least $125,000 tracking Reggie, officials said.

"I'm guessing it's a conservative figure - when you start considering man hours and overtime," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. David Brown, who was taking an afternoon break walking around the lake "and looking for Reggie."

One of Reggie's former owners, Anthony Brewer, 36, pleaded no contest in April to the misdemeanor of releasing an alligator in the city, and in exchange the city dropped five other misdemeanors, said Frank Mateljan, spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney's office.

Brewer was sentenced to 36 months of probation and 45 days of cleaning roadsides for the state transportation agency, Mateljan said.

Todd Natow, 42, a former Los Angeles police officer, has pleaded not guilty to 14 misdemeanors related to the release of the alligator, marijuana possession and unlawful possession of restricted animals, Mateljan said.

At Natow's house, authorities found three juvenile alligators, four piranhas, three desert tortoises, a rattlesnake and a scorpion, and Brewer's house a mile away held two snapping turtles, photos of alligators and evidence of an alligator habitat, Mateljan said.

Prosecutors plan to seek restitution, officials said.

Authorities were alerted to the two men when a neighbor saw a news item about Reggie and reported that an alligator was no longer living in a nearby yard, officials said.

Councilwoman Hahn said the city has since passed a law granting amnesty to people who surrender their illegal, exotic animals.

At croc hunter Irwin's request, the city recently laid a trap at Lake Machado baited with chicken, Reggie's favorite, and if the alligator starts feeding there, the trap will be rigged for capture, officials said.

Problem is, Reggie can munch instead on the many ducks, bullfrogs and other wildlife in the lake.

"We've had a few disappear in the past few months, the small ones, and I don't know why," said Nan Lewis, 76, an exercise physiologist who spends thousands of dollars yearly so that she can daily feed 17 Pekin ducks, a dozen other domestic ducks and several embden geese that pet owners have abandoned at the lake.

Everything about Reggie is discussed among visitors to the park where Lake Machado sits. No one knows the gator's gender, for example. Must be a male, some joke, because it has a fear of commitment and is never where he's supposed to be. It's a female, others say, because it's so smart.

"They're not going to catch it. It's a big lake," said Vanessa Zepeda, 20, as she, her husband and three children set up a tent 100 feet from the lake's edge. "We're not getting near the water."

Then there's the rising cost of the hunt.

"Let's leave the gator alone," said Kevin Vaughn, 50, who was walking his girlfriend's dog. "I don't see it as a public risk, so it's a waste of money."

Michael Martinez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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