A Case of Mistaken Identity

Police, a fire, a website, and a lot of questions - just not in that order

posted 09/11/05

I've had some really surreal experiences while exploring. Several months ago, I was outside an vacant building, taking pictures, when a severely stoned guy came out of the woods and surprised me. "Dude," he said, "I haven't seen you in ages, man. How's it going? I thought you were, like, some guy trying to break in or something, but nevermind." Never seen him before, never seen him since, but until the other night, it was the strangest, most surreal encounter I've had that was exploration-related.

It was about 0230 in the morning, on a weekend, and I was walking home from a park. I'd been hanging out there with a friend, talking about deep, insightful stuff like, um, our cats, actually. I'd found a stray kitten a month or two earlier, and he'd adopted it, and we were catching up on the strange lives of cats and enjoying the view of the city. We'd had the park all to ourself most of the morning, but around 0230 a group of teenagers showed up. Loud, boisterous, and smoking marijuana, they detracted significantly from the ambience of the park. My friend decided to split, and headed off for his place. I left for mine, on foot.

Being a curmudgeon, and disapproving of things like loud, boisterous people who get stoned in public parks, I whipped out my cellphone and placed a brief call to the all-knowing, all-seeing Saint Paul Police Department.

I made it about a block before the police arrived. From there, things got wierd, quickly.

Instead of pulling into the park, the car stopped a few feet up the street from me, and the officers inside lit me up with their spotlights. I approached and greeted them. I wasn't prepared for the reception I received, though.

"Hot damn," the officer in the passanger seat said, "I recognize you! What are you doing out here this late at night?"

"Walking home," I replied.

"You weren't climbing around the cliffs, then? Crawling around in any caves?"

he asked.

"No," I replied, smiling. "Not tonight."

He smiled, too. "But you know why we stopped you, right?"

"Have we met?" I asked. I didn't recognize him. "You seem to know who I am and what I do, but I don't think I know you. Are you one of the guys I ran into the other day?" I'd had a brief, pleasant encounter with a handful of officers just a day or two before, which is a story for another day.

"No, I don't think we've ever met," he said, "but I know who you are." He got out of the car, then, and popped the trunk. "So where are you coming from," he said, then said a name. A person's first name. A given name. He clearly thought it was mine.

It wasn't.

"That's not my name," I said. He asked what it was, and I told him. He didn't seem to believe me, and asked for ID. I handed it to him.

He handed it to his partner, who ran me thru the system. They wanted to know if I'd ever gone by and other names. Had I ever had a speeding ticket? A parking ticket? Never, I told them. The usual sorts of questions, nothing unusual. So far.

The officer asked me a number of exploration-related questions, which I answered. Then, holding a sheaf of papers he'd gotten from a briefcase, he wanted to know if I'd ever been to a certain foreign country. Nope. Had I ever met a certain person? No, I said, but I knew who he was, and had exchanged email with him a couple of times. Did I know where this person was? I had no idea. Not around here, I was pretty sure. He seemed to think otherwise.

I was carrying a small camera bag over one shoulder, primarily to lug my big, old cellphone around in. What was in the bag, he wanted to know. A camera, cellphone, strobe, and a bunch of other photographic odds-and-ends, I said. The usual stuff that accumulates in a camera bag. Did I mind if he looked?

A lot of people would argue that I should have said no. But I've always had a pretty good relationship with law enforcement, and my conscience was completely clear - I hadn't been up to any mischief that night, or even recently. So yeah, I said, go right ahead.

He was very thorough, even taking the time to read every page of the little notebook I keep tucked into one of the pockets. He seemed to find it fascinating reading - pages of phone numbers, library call letters and index numbers, some notes on articles I've written, or planned to write. A few addresses of people I'd sent mail to, including the address to send FOIA requests for the FBI to. Some sketch maps of caves, and buildings, and things like that. And then there came the page I'd completely forgotten about... a list of subjects to photograph for my infrastructure photography webpage. Oops. I explained, but he wasn't convinced. He launched into a lengthy explanation of why he found it so interesting, in his professional capacity as a law-enforcement officer. That lecture was brought to me by the letters "N", "Y", and "C", and the numbers "nine", and "eleven". Really, I told him, I have a webpage with a couple of photos of not particularly critical infrastructure on it, a sort of tongue-in-cheek poke at the paranoia surrounding the whole subject.

Did you know that police cars in Saint Paul have wireless internet? I sure didn't, but they do. Pretty fast, too. The nice officer took down the URL to my photography site, and gave it to his partner. He then continued going thru the notebook, and then thru the rest of the camera bag. He was a little surprised by my camera - a 1930's folding Zeiss Nettar - and a lot curious why I had rubber gloves and several types of bandages in the bag. Having exhausted the very limited excitement of my bag, he asked his partner if he'd found my website.

"Yep," the officer replied. "A whole bunch of pictures of old buildings and caves and stuff."

"From the exterior?"

"No, inside, all over. Some pretty cool stuff."

So they spent a minute or two browsing the site on their laptop, looking at, well, go have a look yourself. The link's just a paragraph or two up, you know.

They were behaving really nicely. Maybe it was an act, I don't know. I really think they were pretty cool guys. At this point, the one who'd done most of the talking said "I can't believe you do this kind of stuff. Everything all dark, and tight and cramped - it'd make me all claustrophobic." I got the impression he thought it was pretty cool. Maybe it was an act, but I don't think so.

He got back out of the car, and we returned to the subject of the list, entitled, obviously enough, "Critical Infrastructure Photography". I asked him if I could ask him a question. "Go for it," he said, "you're not in any trouble or anything."

"Well," I said, "my spidey-sense tells me you're going to forward a copy of that list, my information, and a report of our little meeting here tonight to a certain Ramsey County Sheriff's Deputy who is assigned to the FBI's Joint Task Force out of the Minneapolis Field Office, and who is going to come visit me within a week or two and ask a lot of the same questions you've already asked and make vaguely threatening suggestions about how I'd really ought not to have these sorts of photos online. Am I right?" It wasn't spidey-sense; I was simply describing what had happened to a friend, who'd been stopped while taking pictures near a refinery.

He was pretty noncommital, which isn't a great sign. We went back to the subject of the person the officer thought I look like. No explanation of what the fellow had done, or was supposed to have done, was forthcoming. Details, in general, were in pretty short supply.

Around this point we exhausted the formal part of the encounter; no longer technically "detained", I was given my camera bag and ID back, and was told I was free to go, as I wasn't the wanted fellow they were looking for, and hadn't done anything. The pot smokers were long gone, by this point, but we spent a good fifteen or more minutes talking about urban exploration. It wasn't earth-shattering intelligence-gathering on their part; all their questions could have been answered by a visit to most decent-sized UE websites. It's just something they seemed somewhat aware of and interested in. Eventually they decided it was time to get back to work, and, pleasantries exchanged, they went their way, and I mine.

There are any number of people who would have greeted the whole encounter with hostility; those who would have seen it as part of a conspiracy by "the man" to keep them down, or something. Some might have been angry, some frightened. A few would have accepted it as fate. I found it entertaining. I had nothing better to do at three in the morning that day; being mistaken for another explorer might not have been terribly fun, but firm in the knowledge that I'm me, and not somebody else, it seemed mildly amusing. Hanging out with the police, however, and talking about UE was actually enjoyable. They didn't know much about it before, and I like to think that having had a not unpleasant encounter with a real, live explorer may have gone a little ways towards helping the hobby out, in their eyes.

A day or two later, I sent them each a matted photo from my website, with a note reading "no hard feelings". That could have been the end of it, but for a phone call.

It was about six in the evening when the phone rang. It was a fellow explorer, who was in my area and wanted to know if I was aware that one of the city's largest vacant buildings was presently on fire. It was news to me! It wasn't far from my house, and we were soon over there, impersonating a reporter-cameraman team, poking around and taking photographs. After an hour or so, we'd lost interest in the fire, which wasn't terribly impressive, and the police were keeping everyone - even media, or those impersonating the media - a goodly distance from the actual area. So, with ash raining out of the sky, we trudged back to the car, parked several blocks away.

On the way there, we got accosted by real media people, from a local television station. Were we, they wanted to know, familiar with the building? Intimately, I told them, and they were quite delighted. A brief interview ensued, and we finally made it out of there.

The memory of the whole mistaken-identity thing with the police fresh in my mind, I gleefully hoped that they'd be watching the news that night, and would see my face on screen, with my name beneath. That'll serve them right for not believing who I am, I thought. Twenty-two-hundred rolled around, and, being a slow news day, the building fire led the newscast, at least on a certain local station whose call letters reflect the original owners of the station, a milling company. A milling company, incidentally, whose mill I've been on the roof of. But I digress. So there was the coverage of the fire... and the obligatory man-on-the-street interview. Hey, look, there's my name!

Hey, look, that's not me on screen! Apparently they decided at the last minute to go with a former employee of the building, and not a former recreational trespasser and photographer of the building, but, as is so often the case, nobody told the graphics guy. End result? Ah, crap, I hope those two officers weren't watching, because how many "M. Gildays" could there be in the City on Seven Hills, and what are the odds that we'd both have some connection to an abandoned building? Yeah, pretty darned slim. Odds are much better that one of us is isn't actually M. Gilday, and having keen, if suspicious, analytical minds, it's easy to guess which irreverent individual they're not going to believe.

It's been a week, and I haven't heard anything since, haven't been woken at an unreasonably early hour by uniformed officers knocking on the door. Nobody from the Joint Task Force has interrogated me yet. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe the wheels of Justice move slowly.

More likely, though, the officers, Gods bless their cute little Republican butts, just watch Fox.


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