By Devin Rose
Thatcher Woods has turned up everything from kegs to voodoo icons over the decades. But police say activity at the former party spot for Oak Park and River Forest residents has toned down in recent years.
Officers have been finding signs of drinking in the woods since at least the 1930s, when they would donate the barrels to Brookfield Zoo after dumping the beer, said River Forest Deputy Police Chief Craig Rutz.
When he would patrol the area in the summers, Rutz said there was "almost without fail" a keg party going on with 50 to 200 people. He could never arrest anyone because they'd run into the forest as soon as police showed up.
Running from police was one of the activities mentioned on the message board of a private Facebook group created to reminisce about parties in the woods. Dozens of people in the group, called "Oak Park and River Forest Woods Party at the Trestle," talked about drinking on top of the railroad trestle and moving out of the way if a train came.
"Amazing we were always able to get our heads back below the tracks. In the state we were in, we should have lost a couple," one contributor wrote.
River Forest police used to have primary jurisdiction of the area, but now the Cook County Forest Preserve has its own police department. That department has 114 officers responsible for all 68,000 acres of forest preserve property, according to a spokeswoman. They have a call-sharing agreement with River Forest police so that calls for service in one jurisdiction will transfer to the other department. Forest Preserve Police Chief Richard Waszak could not be reached for comment.
Rutz said all of River Forest's beat officers border the forest preserve and are expected to keep an eye on their borders and report anything out of line. They might accompany forest preserve police if they hear a loud noise coming from the woods, or if there are a lot of cars parked nearby that indicate people have gone in. It's illegal to be in the woods after dark, Rutz said. On the weekends, River Forest officers might do more active patrolling if there are people around playing sports or having gatherings in the area.
"We do what we can to prevent those activities but it's so easy to get out there," Rutz said. After a homicide in the woods in the late '90s, however, a small access road was built along the railroad tracks so police could get back there on bikes, which decreased the number of people hanging around.
"I'd say it's gotten much better," Rutz said, in the last five or 10 years. But he cautioned that there are other dangers to look out for.
There have been reports of shots fired from time to time, mostly in the summer, that might be evidence of people hunting. Rutz said it's difficult to determine how often that happens because the reports are mostly anecdotal. Dead goats and chickens and bloody items associated with voodoo or Santeria activity have also been found.
Animals that die in the woods are left there, Rutz said. Animals that are killed on the street outside the woods are picked up by River Forest's Public Works Department, which has a maintenance agreement with the Illinois Department of Transportation, said Village Administrator Eric Palm.
Rutz said he's even spoken with employees of area hospitals who have seen kids get mosquito bites severe enough to be hospitalized.
The area is now a pretty quiet part of town, Rutz said, but "it's a magnet to all kinds of things."