Investigators on Trail of Death Valley Joyriding Vandal | NBC 7 San Diego
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Investigators on Trail of Death Valley Joyriding Vandal

About 10 miles of SUV tire tracks scar the fragile surface of the dry lake bed in Death Valley National Park



    Miles of tire tracks left behind by someone out for a joyride mark the latest act of vandalism in California's Death Valley National Park.

    The tracks in the hottest, driest place on earth extend for about 10 miles, including looping patterns likely created by doughnuts from the sport utility vehicle's tires, on the fragile surface of the park's "Racetrack Playa." The scars will likely remain on the surface for years because exposed loose silt can be blown away by strong winds, causing a depression in the dry soil.

    The remote dry lake is known for unusual tracks, but not the man-made kind.

    In 2014, scientists unraveled the mystery behind the Playa's "moving rocks," which appeared to leave jagged trails in the surface. The researchers found that large sheets of ice were pushed by winds into the rocks, acting as a sail that moved the rocks across the lake bed.

    WATCH: Vandalism at Devils Hole in Death Valley

    [LA] WATCH: Vandalism at Devils Hole in Death Valley
    Surveillance video shows three shotgun-wielding men breaking into Devils Hole in Death Valley National Park on April 30, 2016. One of them entered the ancient waters where an endangered fish was later found dead. (Published Monday, May 9, 2016)

    But there was no mystery behind the SUV tire tracks, discovered in August by a park ranger. A GPS rendering of the route shows the SUV driver traveled erratically back and forth along the lake bed, made several sharp turns and turned a few doughnuts.

    "We are hopeful that someone will be charged in this case," Abby Wines, a park spokeswoman, told the Los Angeles Times, adding that investigators have a "strong lead."

    Federal investigators told the Times they have identified a suspect believed responsible for the vandalism.

    Authorities did not release the suspect's name.

    The destructive driving case comes after three men were charged in May in connection with damage to a Death Valley National Park rock tub. A federally endangered Devil's Hole Pupfish was found dead at the site. 

    The suspects in that case were identified through DNA left at the crime scene. The park service also released surveillance video of the shotgun-wielding men as they broke into Devil's Hole.

    In June, a San Diego woman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of defiling rocks formations at Death Valley and other national parks.