Lessons Learned From Having Our RV Broken Into in a National Park
Updated: 2 days ago
Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash
It’s now the middle of November. It’s been over four weeks since I last placed a follow-up call to the detective investigating who broke into our Cruise America RV rental in early August in the parking lot designated for visitors to Gateway Arch National Park. Apparently, the detective has stopped returning our calls.
Long story short, after spending a wonderful few hours at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri — our 28th national park visit — we returned to our Cruise America RV rental.
A happy selfie next to our Cruise America RV rental at 10:45 am after paying $20 to park in a so-called parking lot.
A terrible surprise was waiting for us. The driver’s side door was broken into. The perpetrators got in and took nine-five percent of our property — our duffle bags packed with hiking and running clothes, hiking boots, running shoes, gear, my prescription Oakley sport glasses, my husband Jon's toiletries bag with his meds, sleepwear, underwear, and my MacBook laptop filled with my life in words and in pictures.
While we were waiting for a police officer to arrive, Jon spoke to another family visiting the park. All the camera equipment in their RV was stolen. A police officer had just left after taking their report. We were all shocked. We felt helpless.
A St. Louis police officer finally arrived about forty-five minutes later to take our police report and to inform us that St. Louis is the most dangerous city in the country. He also shared that after his car was broken into in the parking lot of the apartment complex he lived in in the city, he moved thirty minutes away.
I called a park ranger police officer to tell him what happened to us and he told me that at one time his motorcycle was stolen from the parking lot across from his office in the park in broad daylight. His motorcycle was never recovered.
The Gateway Arch and the parking lot bordering the Mississippi River. I took this photo from the RV on our way to the park.
When I asked the park ranger police if the surveillance cameras lining the perimeter of the park facing the parking lot bordering the Mississippi River, the state boundary between Missouri and Illinois on the other side, were working cameras, he said that he didn’t know and that even if the cameras work, it doesn’t matter. The perps are hard to identify and arrest because they wear hoodies and face masks. He also told me that the getaway cars are stolen or have stolen license plates. This was upsetting to hear.
After we discovered the break in, Jon took a picture of the surveillance camera about 30 ft. from our RV.
Jon and I now had a decision to make. Do we continue with our national parks itinerary as planned after being victimized in a national park and head to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas?
I shared our plans with the park ranger police officer and he matter-of-factly let me know that of all the national parks (there are 63 national parks), Hot Spring National Park is number one in stolen vehicles and vehicle break ins. My head started to spin.
We had lost just about everything but the clothes on our backs. Do we head out to Hot Springs with a damaged RV door? This was not the first time we experienced a crime. In 1993, our home was burglarized. It was traumatizing. I started a neighborhood watch and kept our neighborhood safe. But I couldn’t keep us safe in a national park and neither could Gateway Arch NP.
I calmly contacted Cruise America headquarters. They emailed me a vehicle accident form to complete. Apparently, they have no forms to report RV break ins. We asked for an RV replacement and we were told that it wasn’t an option. So we moved on to a more pressing matter. We needed to buy clothes and gear if we were to continue on to Hot Springs.
We checked into our reserved KOA (Kampgrounds of America) spot. The staff were very nice and empathetic about what we had endured at Gateway Arch NP. The clerk at the front desk told us where the nearest Walmart is.
We bought $136 worth of clothes, underwear, pajamas, and shoes not really suitable for hiking and walking around in Hot Springs NP, but we were willing to improvise.
When we returned to the KOA, Jon cooked dinner. I researched crime in St. Louis and learned it was the second most dangerous city in the US in 2023. I learned that Hot Springs is one of the most dangerous cities in Arkansas.
Upon learning that visiting Hot Springs NP is or could be just as dangerous as visiting Gateway NP, that night during dinner, we made the decision to cancel our plans to travel to Hot Springs in a Cruise America RV with a broken driver’s side door lock. We made the right decision to return home three days into our national parks adventures. The next morning we returned the items we bought at Walmart the night before, except for our new underwear and pajamas.
Before becoming crime victims in a national park, we had no idea St. Louis was, according to the police officer, the most dangerous city in the US.
Hot Springs NP would have been our 29th national park. We have been to national parks in Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and St. John, US Virgin Islands where we never experienced a vehicle break in or any other crime. But this doesn’t mean that others haven’t experienced a break in or other crimes. Google “car break ins in national parks.”
We are not the only two of many more national parks visitors who have been victims of a crime. While we were a bit traumatized by the unexpected shock of perpetrators breaking into our RV, we learned some lessons, and recommend steps to take that we hope will help us and you so we don’t suffer another national park nightmare.
1.Even if you lock your vehicle, perpetrators will break in.
2. Perpetrators will take everything as quickly as possible thinking that what they take, as in our duffle bags, contain jewelry, money, passports, etc. Our duffle bags contained none of these. But they took my laptop, which was underneath my duffle bag. Unfortunately, the tracker was not turned on. But fortunately, it was locked. The only way to open my laptop is with my password or TouchID. Most of my files were stored in my hard drive at home. All of my photos are on the cloud. It’s hard to say if they tried to pawn my laptop (the detective never followed up on the pawn shops) or if they dumped it in the Mississippi River. By some miracle, they didn’t take what they couldn’t see — Jon’s laptop and our movie projector — which were tucked in the kitchen sink. They didn’t open the narrow closet door and didn’t take a hiking shirt and a fleece jacket with ten junior ranger national parks patches sewn on. I would have been heartbroken if they had taken my patches. But I was so happy I was wearing my vest with fourteen junior ranger patches sewn on.
3. Surveillance cameras captured the crime in progress but did not deter or stop the crime.
4. Surveillance cameras will capture the perpetrators covered in hoodies and masks so police chasing after faceless perps is not a priority. Sometimes they drive away in cars with stolen plates.
5. Sometimes the perp’s face is not covered and is identifiable. This was the case with the perp who drove the getaway car. Initially, the detective called us to inform us that the parking lot surveillance video showed a female driving a red car. The surveillance camera did not capture the other perp. The red car was a rental car, as determined by the license plate. The detective said the car was later found ditched in an alley. The female was known to police. The detective shared that on the surveillance video, they followed her but then lost her. A warrant for her arrest was issued but has never been served. When we asked why the warrant hadn’t been served, the detective said that he just can’t go to her house and knock on her door, and serve the warrant. Really? But the perpetrators can break into our RV and take what is not theirs without a warrant or our consent.
6. Because we are only “tourists” spending our money in their dangerous city, we are expendable, not a priority, and an annoyance when we report the crime, want answers to our questions, and follow up.
7. If you are renting your vehicle, contact the rental company immediately. We contacted Cruise America headquarters. They tried to help, but said they could not replace our damaged RV. They sent us a form to fill. It was not an appropriate form to report a vehicle break in. I sent them a detailed email with the police officer’s name, badge number, telephone number, and the police report information. They were understanding. Three weeks later, we received a refund for the days we did not use our RV because we cancelled our plans. The Cruise America agent near our home where we rented, picked up, and returned the RV was completely unprofessional, uncaring, and unempathetic. When I called them to let them know what had happened to us and their RV in St. Louis and left a message, they never returned my call. Frazzled from the nightmare, when we returned the RV, we inadvertently forgot to remove an empty bottle from the RV that I cleaned and sanitized but missed a butter stain, they showed no compassion for what we’d been through in their RV and proceeded to charge us a $50 cleaning fee. A courtesy waiver due to circumstance would have been graciously accepted. Thank goodness we bought additional insurance to cover any damage when we rented the RV. The damage on the driver’s side door caused by the perps was covered. But we will never rent another RV from or refer anyone to this Cruise America agent.
8. Call your insurance agent as soon as possible and file the police report information. Because our property was stolen from a vehicle, we needed to contact our homeowner’s insurance company and not our automobile insurance company. Be prepared to submit a long itemized list of items that were stolen and their value. Our insurance agent was very helpful. This break in not only cancelled our trip, but also cost us a hefty deductible. But we were satisfied with what was covered.
9. Call your bank, credit card companies, etc. and tell them what happened. Change all your passwords. Luckily, I could do all of this on my iPhone.
10. The next time we travel to a national park, in our own vehicle or in another Cruise America RV, we will install a car alarm and a dashcam. We know the visible dashcam could be stolen or damaged. And the dashcam might not deter the crime, but hopefully the loud, screeching sound of the loudest alarm we can buy will scare the perps away.
We love the national parks. I have written about how to plan for and make your national parks visits fun. Now I write about how to stay safe from perps.
But given the crime that national park visitors experience, the National Park Service (NPS) needs to do a better job of protecting their visitors and providing safe parking. The National Park Service provides some tips on how to keep your vehicle safe at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. Unfortunately, those traveling in a RV can’t keep their valuables at home or at a hotel; our RV serves as both home and hotel.
Gateway Arch NP was our first urban national park. We had a great time in the park and attended a very informative guided ranger tour. We took a ride to the top of the arch. Little did we know that while we were enjoying the view of the parking lot and the Mississippi River, our RV was being broken into.
And I completed the junior ranger program and earned my junior ranger badge. I was happy to pay for the patch and to contribute to the park.
We’re already making plans to adventure in three national parks in Washington state next summer. We will be armed with an alarm and a dashcam and continue to do what we love.
We know there is crime and that safety is never guaranteed. And neither is a return call from the detective. But not arresting the perpetrators for sure is guaranteed.
We are thankful we were not hurt. Who knows what might have happened if we had interrupted the perps in action in our RV. But Jon and I are left wondering — how many more break ins has the woman driving the red getaway car with a warrant out for her arrest, and her partner(s) in crime committed because they can.
I am the author of Come What May, I Want to Run: A Memoir of the Saving Grace of Ultrarunning in Overwhelming Times. Our love of the national parks is also captured in my book. You can order the book from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, and Barnes & Noble here.