Hains Point, the popular federal park that many Washington residents consider their back yard for picnics and recreation, has been closed to vehicles by U.S. Park Police at 9 p.m. on weekend nights for the last month with no announcement to the public.
Park Police said they started closing the park on Saturday and Sunday nights -- and are considering extending the early closing time to weeknights as well -- to dislodge the drug dealers and users who frequent the area, frightening families and tourists away from the 327-acre federal park.
Hains Point, as the officially named East Potomac Park is generally called, is a crescent-shaped peninsula between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel. It is heavily used by area residents seeking a cool respite on steamy days and by tourists who come to view the capital's skyline, visit the former presidential yacht docked there and photograph J. Seward Johnson's sculpture, "Awakening."
In the past, police have occasionally closed Ohio Drive, the only road through the park, when traffic became heavy, but it has been reopened when congestion abated, said National Park Service spokeswoman Sandra Alley.
There has been a parking ban on Ohio Drive from 1 to 6 a.m. to discourage people from camping out, Alley said.
"For the safety of the public, the staff and the park resource itself, we are considering closing the park after dark on a permanent basis," she said.
The new weekend policy, which is experimental, bans vehicles after 9 p.m. but allows pedestrians and cyclists into the park, she said.
Capt. William Spruill, commander of the Park Service central district, which includes Hains Point, said it was decided the park would be closed at dark because of "the amount of problems we have there, including vehicular traffic and drug use.
"People don't walk into the park with drugs, they drive in," said Spruill. "I figured if we could cut down on the traffic, we could cut down on the drugs. This closing the park may seem like drastic action, but we have a drastic problem here."
In one of the most serious of recent incidents at Hains Point, two visitors were shot in an apparent robbery and abduction attempt about 2:30 a.m. June 16.
Gary Hacker, 32, of Alexandria, said he was taking two friends from New York City to see the "Awakening" sculpture.
When they found Ohio Drive gates closed to cars, they decided to walk the mile to the sculpture, said Hacker, but they found it too far and decided to turn back.
"As my friend Joseph Billera put the key into the car door, two guys came up to us and ordered us into the car," said Hacker. "They put a gun to my friend's head, and I stepped into the road to flag a passing car."
Before fleeing, the gunman "just lowered his gun and shot us each in the leg," Hacker said.
Billera, 34, said they both fell to the ground as the assailants fled. "The worst part wasn't being shot," he said. "It was watching people come up and look at us and then turn away while we screamed for help."
Eventually, Hacker said, a group of youngsters assisted the two injured men into Hacker's car and helped them get to a hospital.
"Our legs were shattered," Billera said. Both men face long recoveries, he said.
Billera said he remembered Hains Point from a visit here two years ago as a pleasant place with a lot of families picnicking.
"I didn't know it had changed," said Billera. "It's a U.S. park but there are no signs saying that it is dangerous to be there at night."
Alley said no signs were posted because closing the park was an experiment. Spruill said the closings have cut drug activity in half.
"Maybe one day we can get to the point where it will be worth it for families to come back here," said Spruill.