Hunting down a radio hoax False transmission: A marine radio operator in Anne Arundel County, pretending to be on board a troubled vessel, gets the attention of the Coast Guard, then keeps talking for several hours before he is found.

March 06, 1996|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

A marine radio operator sent out a hoax distress call to the Coast Guard one night recently and then, instead of savoring his joke and clicking off the microphone, he kept talking -- and talking and talking.

He talked for more than five hours.

It may have been the first stream-of-consciousness distress call in Coast Guard history.

He talked in the apparent hope that the Coast Guard would mobilize all available resources to come to the aid of a ship that was variously reported to be on fire, to be sinking, to have been abandoned and to have been taken over by terrorists demanding safe passage to Baltimore.

In fact, only one resource was mobilized -- a Chevy sedan owned by the Federal Communications Commission and equipped with radio directional finder. Over the course of the long night, it finally tracked the impostor, who was not, as he claimed, on the bridge of the supertanker Orion, but in his bedroom at home in Arnold.

The call went on so long that four radio technicians at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay took turns handling it. Their only orders, once it became clear that it was a hoax, was to keep the caller talking. And talk he did.

"At first we didn't know what to think," said Coast Guardsman Michael Monroe, a telecommunications specialist third class. "Some of the time the most bizarre cases turn out to be true."

Specialist Monroe and his colleagues are trained to treat every call seriously, because people sometimes act slightly out of the ordinary when under stress at sea. But the limits of skepticism quickly were breached this time.

The caller said he was on the Choptank River on a supertanker, then off Ocean City, then 35 to 40 minutes from the Key Bridge.

He never gave an exact position.

His problems kept changing.

The first call came at 11: 30 p.m. Feb. 11, a calm night when the temperature was in the mid-30s. Coast Guard operators sent out a general broadcast alerting all shipping in the Chesapeake that a distress call had been received and asking for supporting information from any vessel that might be near the Orion.

Before the call went any further, though, Specialist Monroe, his chief petty officer and eventually officers in Portsmouth, Va., who were consulted, concluded that they were dealing with a trickster, and they called the FCC.

Unfortunately, not every hoax call to the Coast Guard is so clearly unbelievable, and many times, cutters, helicopters or planes are sent out to verify distress signals.

In general, statistics on such calls are not kept, but a special study of the New England region by the Coast Guard found that, in 1995, the service responded to 416 hoax calls, at a cost of $624,900, according to Lt. Frank Parker, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington.

New England, he said, probably has the most severe problem with hoaxes. "But it's a very big problem everywhere," he added. On this night in Maryland, the FCC officer in charge at the commission's facility in Columbia listened in on the call and decided it was worth pursuing. Making a false distress call is a criminal offense, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

The FCC staffer called James Walker, an FCC electrical engineer, at home, and together they decided to find the culprit.

Mr. Walker drove to Columbia, picked up the specially equipped Chevrolet and by 1: 30 a.m. Feb. 12 had headed out.

The Coast Guard was getting the strongest signal at the Bay Bridge, so Mr. Walker drove there.

He could hear nothing at first, and picked up a faint signal as he crossed the bridge. "Crude, but, hey, this is what we got. Let's work with it," he said.

The signal seemed to be coming from behind, and on Kent Island it disappeared again, so he drove back across the bridge and west on U.S. 50. Mr. Walker decided to head up Route 2, and when he reached Arnold he picked up the caller.

Then it was just a matter of zeroing in.

"We were probably within a mile of his residence," Mr. Walker said. "But there are a lot of crooked streets and dead ends in there, and I think we found them all that night."

The directional finder has an electronic arrow that points to the signal's origin. Mr. Walker had to keep driving up and down streets in Arnold until he reached the right house.

At 3: 30 a.m., he parked and called Anne Arundel County police for assistance. By 4: 30 a.m., a police officer had arrived, and together they went to the house -- a two-story, modest building in an older development.

The impostor's mother answered the door and told Mr. Walker that he probably should speak to her 25-year-old son, who was upstairs.

The police officer talked to the young man, Mr. Walker told him he was violating the law, and they left.

The longest of all distress calls finally came to an end.

The FCC did not identify the caller because he faces civil or criminal charges for making a false distress call and operating a marine radio without a license.

"I'm not sure what he thought he was doing," Mr. Walker said. "Just having fun, I guess."

Pub Date: 3/06/96

"We got bomb problems"

Excerpts from the official Coast Guard tape of the distress call, in which the hoax caller describes some of his problems and the Coast Guard operators, unfailingly polite, try to keep him talking so that FCC engineers can track the broadcast:

Orion: We have steering problems and, oh Christ, we got bomb problems.

Coast Guard: What kind of problems?

Orion: You heard me, a bomb problem. . . .

Coast Guard: What kind of bomb is it?

Orion: I don't know. I'm not a bomb expert.

Coast Guard: Where's the bomb located?

Orion: Engine room.

Coast Guard: Can you describe what it looks like?

Orion: Stand by. [long pause] I said we have a black box approximately 15 centimeters by 14 feet. [inaudible] red and yellow water.

Coast Guard: Tanker Orion, we need a specific position.

Orion: I told you. Stand by. I'm new at this, all right? My navigator fell, all right? I don't know what to tell you. I don't know where I'm at. . . .

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