Viewfinder San Pedro Lookout Point

A week after the viewfinder at Lookout Point Park went missing it has been replaced in San Pedro on Tuesday, December 31, 2019. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

There are no leads in the now-confirmed theft of a popular view scope at San Pedro’s Gaffey Street lookout point, according to police.

And the independent concessioner who has maintained the devices for 20 years said he’s the one who replaced it earlier this week.

He also said it’s not the first time one has been taken.

Three scopes have been stolen in just the last 18 months, said Bunker Hill, a Huntington Beach resident who owns the coin-operated devices and is tasked with maintaining or replacing them at Lookout Point Park, a site overseen by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. Others have been vandalized with sledge hammers, Hill added, in a trend he says has cost him increasingly more money.

The city of Los Angeles, which owns the property on which the park sits, splits the coin proceeds from the machines with Hill in a 50/50 agreement.

Hill said he replaced the stolen one, which vanished just before Christmas, with an older binocular-style viewer from his own inventory, the concessioner said in a Thursday, Jan. 2, interview. He put the replacement in on Monday, Dec. 30.

Until Hill’s confirmation that he replaced the viewfinder, questions swirled around the community about whether the thieves may have brought the original back or if city maintenance crews replaced it with another.

Officer Paul Winter, with LAPD’s Harbor Division and the senior lead officer for the coastal communities, said in a Thursday text message that he has filed a report for grand theft with his division. Detectives will work the case, Winter said.

Hill, however, said nothing ever came of reports he filed in the past.

The two viewfinders at Lookout Point Park, a concrete turnout on South Gaffey Street, offers panoramic views of the Port of Los Angeles, the mountains to the northeast and Catalina Island to the south. For 50 cents, visitors can spend several minutes enjoying closeups through the viewfinders.

“These are pretty prime locations,” Hill said.

And each viewfinder takes in about $120 a month, he added.

But increasing theft and vandalism have taken a financial toll on the operation, Hill said, with his books for 2020 already in the red — not even a full week into the new year.

Refurbishing a damaged device costs around $2,000, Hill said.

And new viewfinders cost $4,000, according to Marie Saunders, who works for SeeCoast Manufacturing Co., in Fairhope, Alabama, the company that has manufactured the scopes since 1960.

A machine full of change can hold up to $250-$300, Saunders said, and thefts do occur. One was stolen last summer from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, she said. The devices come equipped with serial numbers, though; so if a stolen scope gets recovered, the company can identify it.

The viewfinders are distributed throughout the world. In the U.S., SeaCoast viewfinders reside in zoos in Oregon and Denver, and at the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor, Saunders said.

Once SeeCoast sells and a concessioner receives the viewfinders, however, the company is no longer directly involved in maintaining or keeping track of them, Saunders added.

Hill, noting that the scopes cost $4,400 when freight charges from Alabama get added, said the one taken before Christmas in San Pedro was “muscled off” its post. The viewer “heads” are secured with locking bolts on the permanent posts, he said, and the process must have taken some time.

Free of their posts, the aluminum machines weigh between 50 and 90 pounds.

Typically, Hill said, they’re discarded once the change is extracted. They’re tossed in the garbage or “off the end of a dock,” he said — and all, he guessed in this particular case, for about $23 in quarters.

Recycling a stolen device would bring about $14, Hill said, but that task would also be complicated by having to remove the glass optics components.

“They literally have zero commercial value,” said Hill, whose late father initially began investing in the business.

The scopes have become a focal point at what is a popular spot for San Pedro locals and visitors alike, including Lynnette Silva of Torrance, who brought her two grandchildren — Bella, 6, and Ayden, 7 — by Lookout Point Park on Thursday.

Sailboats dotted the waters below as the children climbed onto the viewfinder stands, swinging them from side to side as they peered through the lens. Both machines remain operable, Hill said, but the vandalized coin slots are now stiff and hard to work.

Using the viewfinders to watch all the activity in the port, Silva said, gives her grandchildren a chance to ask questions and learn about the area where she grew up and still has family ties.

Recently, Silva added, she found the spot especially peaceful for prayer while she was caring for an ill family member who lived within walking distance of the park.

“I’m just grateful to have this spot,” she said.

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