The Conway Fire Department Bomb Squad responded to a report of a suspicious object alongside Prince Street Saturday morning. The object was determined to be a "geocache," and not dangerous.
The Conway Police Department was notified of the suspicious device by Ali Hamad, who was opening his gas station at 2820 Prince St. at about 8 a.m. when he saw a car parked near Prince Street and a person walking around a roadside bush for no apparent reason. Hamad investigated the area after the vehicle left and found a cylindrical object wrapped in brown tape that he feared may have been constructed and placed with malicious intent.
The Conway Fire Department and CPD secured the area and closed Prince Street. Some surrounding businesses were also shut down until the object was determined to pose no threat.
The bomb squad used its remote-controlled robotic vehicle to make initial contact with the object and a bomb squad member wearing a protective suit used a hand-held X-ray device to determine that the cylindrical object did not contain explosive or incendiary materials before disassembling it.
What the object did contain, CFD Division Chief Jon McMahan said, was a piece of paper presumably used by geocachers to log when they had found the "cache."
Geocaching is a hobby practiced throughout the world in which a container is placed in a somewhat remote or hidden location and precise Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of the container posted online at www.geocaching.com and other regional or club geocaching Web sites, such as that of the Arkansas Geocacher's Association (AGA), www.arkgeocaching.org. Geocachers then use handheld GPS receivers to follow these coordinates to locate the caches.
Some containers contain trinkets or other "treasures" which geocachers take and replace with other items of similar or greater value, while others contain a piece of paper for geocachers to record the date of the find.
The "suspicious" woman Hamad saw near the roadside Saturday morning was likely a geocacher making a find.
It was AGA member Tim Stone of Conway that placed the cache found by the bomb squad robot, according to fellow AGA member Wayne Lunsford, also of Conway.
As it happened, Lunsford and Stone hosted an AGA meeting in Conway on Saturday. The members were aware that one of their caches had sparked a bomb scare earlier in the day, Lunsford said, and the club discussed how to avoid future clashes between their hobby and law enforcement.
"Geocachers really try to pride themselves on being law-abiding and family friendly," Lunsford said Saturday afternoon. "I really hate that this happened."
All AGA members at the meeting were reminded of the rules that caches must be clearly labelled and that permission be granted from property owners when placing a cache on private property.
Stone said he wished to apologize to those who were inconvenienced or alarmed.
"I feel terrible that I caused anybody any worry or grief or trouble," he said. "Sometimes you get so involved in playing the game that you forget how outsiders view it. I feel terrible and I'm really sorry that it caused any problems. I'm going back and re-evaluating my geocaches and I'd advise anybody hiding geocaches to go back and do the same thing."
McMahan said that the incident was the third time the Conway Bomb Squad had responded to reports of a suspicious device to find a geocache.
"It's a real problem for squads all over the country," McMahan said. "It's an interesting hobby, but it comes down to somebody putting a suspicious package in a suspicious place under suspicious circumstances."
McMahan urged geocachers to clearly label their caches with information to let citizens and police/fire personnel know what it is and who put it there. The label should include contact information so that whoever finds it can contact whoever placed it there, he added.
Lunsford said AGA members met a few years ago with former Conway Chief of Police Randle Aragon to discuss the nature of the geocaching hobby, and intends to meet with current Chief of Police A. J. Gary to discuss the same.
Gary said he also intends to meet with the hobbyists.
"It's a lot of manpower and expense to come out to something like that," he said. "It's our intention to touch base with them ... and ensure that what happened today doesn't happen again."
Gary said Saturday afternoon that he was unsure if criminal trespass or other charges will be filed in this incident, but that police and fire personnel were instructed to consider the cache evidence and transport it to CPD headquarters.
Investigating suspicious objects is what the bomb squad does, McMahan said, and the citizen who reported this one "absolutely did the right thing."
While at the scene he said he was more frustrated with the motorists who drove around a fire truck parked across the road to block traffic than geocachers.
"If there's a fire truck parked across the road that means the road's closed," he said.
Stone placed the cache at Prince Street on Oct. 19. Five geocachers have since posted comments on geocaching.com stating that they had located it. One of the comments warns of "muggles," a term used in the Harry Potter book series to refer to persons unfamiliar with magic and used by geocachers to refer to people unfamiliar with the hobby who may find it strange to see that someone is, for instance, searching through a bush along Prince Street early on a Saturday morning.
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1238. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)