BARNEGAT, N.J. - Is the Garden State Parkway the highway to hell? Or is the New Jersey Turnpike the road to damnation? Someone keeps stealing the metal signs at mile marker 66.6 along the heavily traveled toll roads, and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is having a devil of a time keeping up with the thefts.
It's been happening all over the country, particularly on roads with names like Route 666. Officials aren't sure if the thefts are being committed by religious zealots upset about the number's association in the Bible with the devil, by Satanic scavenger hunters, or by college students who think a '666' sign would look cool in their dorm room.
Joe Orlando, a spokesman for the Authority, said officials have no idea who is taking the signs.
"Maybe it's just some kids with a Devil-may-care attitude," Orlando said.
The latest theft involved someone swiping the 66.6 mile marker sign on the Parkway's northbound lanes. It's in a sparsely populated section of the Pinelands far from any entrances or exits. In short, you'd have to know the sign was there and go looking for it.
But look for it - and take it - they do. Within the past two years, 66.6 mile marker signs have been stolen at least four or five times from the Turnpike and Parkway, he said.
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"Given the symbolism of the number and the fact that it is obviously done in the middle of night, and in the middle of nowhere, I can safely say that I'm not eager to meet the rocket scientists doing it," Orlando added.
In the Biblical Book of Revelations, verse 13:18 reads, "Let him who hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred sixty six."
The Parkway sign, when it's not stolen, is located in Barnegat; the Turnpike sign in East Windsor.
It costs as much as $50 to replace the signs, which doesn't sound like much, until you keep repeating it over, and over again.
A few years ago, highway officials in Morris County couldn't keep signs for Route 666 on the poles; as quickly as crews put them up, someone would take them down and steal them, often within a day or two.
Solution: They changed the name of the road to Route 665. A similar tactic might be in store for the Parkway and Turnpike mile markers, with replacement signs reading 66.61, which kind of wrecks the Satanic buzz.
In 2003, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado renamed the 194-mile-long Route 666 as Route 491 after a rash of sign thefts. Some wound up on eBay.
Pennsylvania has a Route 666, but a state transportation spokesman said few signs, if any, have been stolen.
In the meantime, New Jersey transportation officials keep replacing the mile marker signs. The Parkway thefts are happening in the same general area in which a mysterious decorator made nationwide headlines last winter by covertly festooning a huge pine tree along the side of the road with Christmas decorations.
"You almost want to put a camera out there, just to see who has this much free time," Orlando said.