By Clay Wilson
Four days after area police were put on high alert for a man seen taking pictures of Hampton's Federal Aviation Administration building, FAA officials learned the man was an agency employee snapping photos for his family.
FAA Public Affairs Manager Kathleen Bergen said Tuesday afternoon that the man who had been the subject of an area-wide lookout was a FAA trainee taking pictures of his new workplace for out-of-town relatives.
Police in Henry and several surrounding counties had been instructed to keep a lookout for a Middle Eastern man in a dark-colored Jeep Cherokee. The man was spotted Friday on Woolsey Road by an off-duty police officer who reported that he was apparently snapping photos of the FAA building.
The Hampton facility provides air traffic control for several southeastern states.
When the officer approached the Jeep, the man drove off. The officer got a tag number, and this ultimately allowed officials to identify the driver.
On Monday, Hampton police said they had no luck checking California and Louisiana plates states that have tags resembling the one described by the officer. But according to Hampton Police Investigator Billy Ward, FAA officials later ran the tag against their own database of employees' tag numbers and identified the driver.
Bergen declined to release the man's identity, saying the FAA does not disclose employee names.
She did say, though, that she thinks the reaction to the incident was appropriate. She said it showed that the off-duty police officer was staying alert to suspicious activity something officials encourage all Americans to do following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Unfortunately, it was a misunderstanding," she said, but "I think we followed up appropriately, as did law enforcement."
Law enforcement officials apparently were taking the incident very seriously. In Clayton County Tuesday morning, police questioned a Middle Eastern-looking man who was reported to be walking on Woolsey Road near the FAA building.
As it turned out, according to Ward, the man was actually on Upper Woolsey Road in Clayton County and was just out for a walk.
Around 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, a witness spotted a green Jeep Cherokee, called police and tailed the vehicle until police arrived and questioned the driver. The police quickly concluded the Jeep was not the one being sought.
Ward said he is relieved that the identity of the mystery photographer has been discovered.
"Anytime something like this is going on, you feel better knowing that it wasn't anything," he said.
Bergen said FAA officials feel better now, too.
"We're happy to have that resolved and very glad that it wasn't anything improper," she said.
Asked if the agency is going to institute rules against employees photographing its facilities, Bergen said, "I don't know that we're going to have to bring about any new procedures."