Explorer is pinched in `Wire' adventure

May 02, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun Reporter

When Michael S. Arndt crawled up a trash chute and into a Columbia warehouse in February, he expected to roam a deserted, decrepit cavern - his first attempt at a new and risky hobby called urban exploring.

Instead, Arndt walked into the soundstage for the HBO series The Wire, where a security guard confronted him and called police.

Yesterday, Howard County District Court Judge Mary C. Reese sentenced the 25-year-old Columbia man to six months' probation for possession of burglary tools and ordered him to stay away from the show's sets and the Web site that inspired his evening prowl, www.urbanadvent ure.org, according to prosecutors and Arndt's attorney, Tae Kim.

Arndt had been dabbling in urban exploring, also known as urban hacking, infiltration, urban spelunking and urban adventure. Urban explorers ignore no-trespassing signs, often crawling through holes in chain-link fences or peeling away plywood to probe the dank underbelly of abandoned America.

Mostly young men, urban explorers take photos and post them on Web sites - sometimes with the eye of an artist or appreciation of a historian - as proof of their daring.

The thrill is "the process of going there, doing it, being in the unknown and out of our highly controlled world," said Alan S. North, the California-based author of the 1991 book, The Urban Adventure Handbook, which jump-started the phenomenon. "We're in a world in which we find everything on Google Map or with a GPS system. In urban exploring, the destination is the going."

North's book contains a prominent but rather irreverent disclaimer advising readers that the sport is "inherently dangerous" and can result in damage to one's "life, limb and criminal record."

Kim said Arndt pleaded guilty to one count of possession of burglary tools. Kim said Arndt, who lost his job after his arrest appeared in the news media, vowed to never go urban exploring again.

"My client did this once with very bad consequences," Kim said. "It was his first time ever trying this out."

Urban explorers insist that, aside from trespassing, they're not criminals.

Several of the more established explorers, such as Dan Haga of Joppa, say they have gone "legit," meaning that they obtain permission from property owners before most expeditions. Many adhere to the Sierra Club's "minimum impact" model of "take only pictures; leave only footprints."

However, some do leave behind graffiti tags to let other explorers know that they've been there, or they remove souvenirs.

"We don't disrespect the property or even use force to get in," said Haga, 26, a 3-D modeler and animator who created urbanatro phy.com with friend Dan Ayers. "No matter what the place, there is almost always an open way in created by local kids, the homeless or metal scrappers looking for their next fix. If we can't find a way in, we will try again later."

Urban explorers generally avoid secured facilities and do not carry burglary tools.

Arndt, however, was carrying a butane soldering torch, pliers, flashlight, and rubber and leather gloves when he entered The Wire's soundstage in a business park off Snowden River Parkway, according to Howard County police.

Arndt's case, Haga said, demonstrates why knowledgeable explorers "do not carry those types of tools. Just having a crowbar or lock-pick can bump you up from a trespass/unlawful entry [charge] to a breaking and entering or burglary charge real fast."

Haga's Web site is filled with hundreds of photographs of once-prominent Baltimore area buildings, including the Gunther Brewery, the veterans hospital at Fort Howard, the Thistle Mill in Ellicott City, and churches and schools.

The tagline on the site is "Illuminating the Forgotten." Some shots depict nothing more than grime, peeled paint and graffiti. But occasionally, Haga's images capture the creepiness of the adventure or, under the splash of sun rays, the brilliance of what once was, and perhaps still is, beautiful.

"When you're visiting a place you have never been, you never know what to expect," he said. "There are dozens of threats that keep you on your toes - alarms, security, police, extremely unstable structure, homeless [people], crackheads, dogs, etc. When you get past all that and find yourself inside an architectural ... masterpiece, it's a feeling I can't even explain other than [it's] definitely worth it."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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