By Clay Wilson
Henry and Clayton county police were put on high alert Friday after a witness reported a Middle-Eastern-looking man photographing the Federal Aviation Administration building in Hampton.
Henry County Dispatch issued a "be on the lookout" message around 2:45 p.m. Friday for a blue Jeep Cherokee with a California tag occupied by a "man of Middle Eastern descent." It said the man had been spotted photographing the FAA building.
According to Hampton Police Chief Bud Smith, a passerby spotted the Jeep stopped on Woolsey Road about 200 feet from the building around 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The witness told Hampton police the driver of the Jeep appeared to be taking pictures of both the FAA building and a nearby daycare facility.
According to Smith, as the witness drove up to the scene, the Jeep drove away.
Smith said Hampton police met with the witness Friday morning and took a report. They also contacted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"We're working with them as we speak," Smith said.
"We're just making an attempt to locate this person and find out what the purpose of taking these pictures was."
According to FAA Public Affairs Manager Kathleen Bergen, the Hampton facility provides high-altitude air-traffic control for seven or eight Southeastern states. She said the installation is staffed by hundreds of employees and guides thousands of aircraft each day.
Like all federal facilities, the Hampton installation has been on heightened security alert since the Sept. 11 attack. Concrete barriers block chain-link, barbed-wire topped gates that once provided access to the property.
According to Smith, the driver of the Jeep likely had to park on the road because there is no place to park closer to the building. Hampton Police Investigator Billy Ward said the FAA installation is so closely guarded that even the police have to sign in at the gate.
Smith said this is the first time he's aware of in his year-and-a-half tenure as police chief of a report of suspicious activity near the FAA building.
Bergen said she could not discuss specific security measures at the facility.
However, she said, "Our entire agency the entire industry has been on a heightened state of alert."
The nation is on the yellow ("elevated") level on the Department of Homeland Security's terror threat scale, meaning the department perceives a "significant risk of terrorist attacks."
Smith said the heightened alert causes police to take particular notice of suspicious activity.
"With the security situation, if we find someone taking pictures or acting suspicious around that facility or any other major facility, we're certainly going to try to identify him and determine the purpose for the pictures," he said.
"It may be nothing, but then again it may be something."
Anyone with information on the incident or who spots the blue Jeep is asked to call the Hampton Police at (770) 946-4513.