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Fear lingers along secluded trails Arrest in bike path killings has not brought peace of mind

Deeply rattled by the slaying of Joan Diver last September on a Clarence bike path, 22-year-old Liz Guillen immediately stopped jogging there. And she's not going back either, despite the arrest last week of a man believed to be the Bike Path Killer.

"No way," said Guillen, who works at a coffeehouse in Clarence, near the bike path where the body of the Clarence mother of four was found.

Just the thought of it is too frightening, she said.

That is exactly what conservationists, neighborhood activists, politicians and others do not want to hear -- not after campaigning for decades to create an elaborate network of paths, nature trails and other protected green space.

Those paths and trails are growing in popularity, officials say. But even with the arrest of Altemio Sanchez, some trail users say they will never feel the same sense of peace and might skip the experience altogether. In fact, Diver's death and the arrest revealed concerns that have been on the back burner for years -- how to make bike paths safe, or at least as safe as they can be.

"We were spoiled," said William Kindel, an Amherst council member who helped stop creation of a major bike path several years ago after a homeowner uprising. "We had this delusion of safety, and we shouldn't have."

Bike paths and jogging trails have been the subject of safety concerns for years, and not just in Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs. In 1999, a Salamanca woman, Penny Brown, was strangled while using a trail along abandoned railroad property.

Towns are trying to be extra mindful of safety. Clarence is setting up video cameras, volunteer bike-path patrols and more policing in general, for instance.

Forget relying on a dog, or Mace. "Those aren't going to save you," said Clarence Councilman Joseph Weiss. "You need to be with someone at all times."

Second thoughts about bike path safety come at a time when Western New York, like most of the nation, is focusing on preserving green space from sprawl and development.

Amherst, for instance, now has a half-dozen or so bike paths encompassing nearly 23 miles. Clarence's bike paths traverse the entire town, stretching from Transit Road to the Newstead border, where the path continues.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group pushing conversion of abandoned railroad lines into bike paths and nature trails, estimates New York has about 76 of them, comprising 805 miles.

Whatever problems do arise, experts said, are the result of where and how they are built.

The bike path that Erie County maintains, which stretches from Ellicott Creek Park in the Town of Tonawanda to Porter Avenue in Buffalo, hugs the river in large part, is visible and well used -- enough to deter crime, County Parks Commissioner Angelo Sedita said.

Built-up towns such as Hamburg locate bike paths parallel to roads because they have limited green space with which to work. That all makes users more visible.

But less-populated communities that select remote routes for bike paths and nature trails are looking for trouble if they aren't careful, he said.

"There is a lot of federal and state money around," Sedita said. "They're looking for a piece of it. They have somewhere where there's wildlife, it's serene, it's a scenic adventure. So that's where they locate it. All of a sudden, they realize they have a muggers' paradise."

Although crime is reported on bike paths, a Rails-to-Trails spokesman said they are actually safer than what they usually replace, as long as communities are careful to make the paths visible and well-policed.

"They are not magnets for crime," said Jeffrey Ciabotti, the Conservancy's vice president for trail development. "An abandoned corridor, unused year after year, is what attracts crime."

Amherst's Kindel points out, though, that towns often find that homeowners rebel if the paths are too close to their houses. That happened in 2003, when town officials tried an ambitious $1.3 million plan to convert the Peanut Line -- abandoned railroad tracks and right of way -- into a 5.5-mile trail running parallel to the Youngmann Highway, from Main Street to Niagara Falls Boulevard.

Neighborhood homeowners picketed Town Hall and castigated the board. Kindel sponsored the motion that killed the plan. "It was just inappropriate," he said. "People were concerned about having strangers looking in their windows."

Whatever the case, some suspect it will be harder to overcome the psychological issues raised by the Bike Path Killer than any physical changes made to the paths themselves.

At the Clarence Center Coffee Company and Cafe, near the bike path where Diver's body was found, the arrest in the Bike Path Killer case was a relief, but no real comfort.

The cafe had been a favorite spot for walking clubs, joggers and others -- many of whom stopped coming.

The question now, said night manager Daniel Massey, is whether they will return.

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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