High-tech hobby sets off security turmoil at LAX
- I have seen several of these 'Law Enforcement vs. Geocacher' articles lately. Police encounters with suspicious containers are happening weekly.I'm going to write a City of Chico-wide email on Tuesday and send it out to all City employees explaining briefly what geocaching is.I had the misfortune of having my Sergeant bust me for my cache hidden at the CPD (post 9-11 concerns). I think it might help if everyone (park rangers, DPW, etc) knew about our hobby.Please think when you hide your containers. The trend is clear plastic Tupperware-type containers so the contents can easily been seen as a non-threat. If you do use an ammo box or cammo'ed container, please clearly mark it "No Threat", "Official Gamepiece" or something similar.Happy caching!!EdThe Badge & The Butterfly--------------------------------------------------------------------------"High-tech hobby sets off security turmoil at LAX"Geocaching, a game that combines GPS devices and scavenger hunting, raised red flags at the airport last week.By Ian Gregor and Nick Green
Jay Furr was participating in a high-tech treasure hunt.
Police mistook him for a possible terrorist.
And so Furr's quick dash to Los Angeles International Airport last week turned into an hours-long ordeal that saw him spread-eagled against a police car, handcuffed, locked in a jail cell and interrogated by police and FBI agents, curious as to why a large, bearded man was lurking alone with a global positioning system in a secluded area near the state's top terrorist target.
"An airport perimeter the night before a national election is, evidently, a bad place to be found strolling blithely around with a GPS in hand," Furr wrote in an Internet posting.
Furr's ordeal began Monday night when the software trainer from Vermont left his Century Boulevard hotel room to stash a green and purple toy snake in a plastic container that was hidden on the north side of LAX, wedged between a shrub and a chain-link fence, near Northside Parkway and Loyola Boulevard. His endeavor was part of a game called "geocaching," in which players use GPS to find items that others have planted.
Shortly after sunset, Furr found the LAX cache, placed the snake inside, removed three or four other items that he intended to transport to other parts of the country, and prepared to walk away. That's when two LAPD motorcycle officers rolled up and asked him what he was doing.
"I said I was only out for a walk," Furr said in an interview. The officers asked what he was holding. He told them it was a GPS.
"Then (they) called in the cavalry," Furr said. "At one point, I believe there were about 10 (police) cars present, all there for me."
Furr found himself in hot water because a game that is largely unknown to the public and law enforcement collided with post-Sept. 11 security concerns. Indeed, authorities were so concerned that terrorists could use Northside Parkway to shoot down a plane with a shoulder-fired missile that they closed that street and three others nearby to vehicular traffic in May 2002. It remains open to pedestrians.
What city officials did not know is that geocachers had hidden a container at Northside and Loyola five weeks earlier. Despite the area's supposed sensitivity, 463 people had visited the site without incident until Furr came along, according to a log book kept with the cache, which was known as "Grand Central Station."
Why a cache was placed there is unknown. Guidelines on www.geocaching.com tell players not to hide things near railroad tracks, military installations and public structures deemed possible terrorist targets, including highway bridges, dams, government buildings -- and airports.
"LAX is not an appropriate venue for this type of activity," said Paul Haney, LAX's deputy executive director of communications. "LAX is on about 3,700 acres of land. Fortunately, there are millions of other acres in the state that are available for this type of hobby."
LAX isn't the only place where misunderstandings have had interesting consequences. In Modesto and central Indiana during the past week alone, police bomb squads blew up caches that were mistaken for possible explosives, according to published reports.
Nor is the LAX cache the only one in the South Bay that could be considered inappropriate. At least two are attached to the bottom of U.S. mailboxes in busy areas -- a Torrance subdivision and a Torrance business park. Another is close to railroad tracks near a Dow chemical plant and the ExxonMobil oil refinery.
That cache has attracted 57 geocachers since it was hidden in April, with several expressing concern about the location.
"This is certainly an interesting spot," geocacher EScout wrote at geocaching.com after visiting the site earlier this year. "Crossing railroad tracks, in the railroad right of way between a refinery and chemical facility. Because of the fear of being mistaken as a terrorist, I got out of here quickly."
Furr, 37, said he had qualms about the LAX site and almost didn't visit it on Monday.
"I had cold feet, I shouldn't have gone," said Furr, who geocaches with his wife, Carole, under the moniker "Otter and Lemur."
He didn't know that another factor was in play as well. A few nights earlier, police had stopped a French citizen who was videotaping the Sepulveda tunnel beneath an LAX runway. Haney said he turned out to be nothing more than a plane spotter -- somebody who visits airports throughout the world to watch aircraft and write down their tail numbers -- but it's unclear whether that information filtered down to rank-and-file police officers.
What was clear was that the terror attacks that occurred in Spain in March, three days before that country's national election, were at the forefront of officers' minds the night before the U.S. election, Furr said.
"They wanted to make sure I was not chapter two of that same kind of thing," said Furr, who was taken to the LAPD's Pacific Division station.
Though fearful that he could be branded a terrorist and held indefinitely, Furr said he remained calm and tried to explain the concept of geocaching to police. Finally, an officer visited geocaching.com, conferred with others, and Furr was allowed to leave.
But as he walked to his car, police called him back, saying they had just gotten hold of FBI agents who wanted to talk to him as well. Believing he would be arrested if he refused the invitation, Furr said he told them he would be happy to cooperate with the FBI and returned to the station -- this time sans handcuffs.
Furr said three FBI agents he spoke with were courteous during the hour he spent with them, and seemed to be amused as they examined items from the cache, which included a penguin, a skunk and a keychain soccer ball. But a fourth man, who was wearing a "POLICE" badge around his neck, dressed him down "something fierce," Furr said.
Reaction to the incident among geocachers was mixed. Some who posted messages on geocaching.com accused police of overreacting, while others -- including Furr -- said the response was reasonable given the circumstances.
"They were entirely justified in taking me in," Furr said. "I have no criticisms of the FBI at all and police were just doing their job."
As for the toy snake, Furr said he is mailing it to geocachers named Happy and Skippy in Fountain Valley, who will place it in a local cache so it will be closer to its intended destination in the state of Washington.