BOISE Scot Tintsman says he never had any troubles with the law until his girlfriend introduced him to what became his all-consuming passion: the satellite-navigated treasure hunt called geocaching.
"She got me hooked," said the 33-year-old Idaho man, who faces criminal charges for hanging a green bucket beneath a concrete bridge on a major state highway last September.
His "cache" was placed for other players to find using handheld Global Positioning System units. But before he could even finish adding the requisite trinkets and log books to the cache and posting its GPS coordinates on the Internet, it was indeed discovered by a state bridge inspection crew.
That triggered a seven-hour road closure and emergency response from officials who feared a bomb had been rigged to the bridge.
Unaware of the alarm, Tintsman was returning to finish rigging his cache when he rounded a corner on his motorcycle and was confronted by a barricade of police cars and a bomb squad. He struggled to explain that it was all a misunderstanding.
"I got off my bike and three officers approached me very cautiously, hands on their holsters," he said. "I was trying to turn off my MP3 player and I think they were worried I was going for a detonator."
Tintsman's case of cache confusion isn't isolated. In November, a suspicious box placed outside the Provo, Utah, police station was blasted by a bomb squad robot. It turned out to be a geocache containing a toy gun, holster and nightstick. Geocachers usually take a trinket from a cache and leave another behind.
In June, a bomb squad in De Pere, Wis., used a robot-mounted shotgun to blast the lid off a suspicious-looking military ammunition box found in a park. It also turned out to be a geocache.
And on the night before the 2004 presidential election, police and the FBI spent hours questioning a man who was seen prowling along a chain-link fence at Los Angeles International Airport with a GPS unit. He was a geocacher from Vermont trying to stash a green-and-purple toy snake into a cache placed five weeks earlier that had already been visited by 463 people.
Guidelines on www.geocaching.com the most popular Web clearinghouse for registering geocache hides and finds advise players not to place caches near critical infrastructure or public buildings that might be terrorist targets. And with more than 1 million people worldwide estimated to participate in the sport, geocaching.com co-founder Bryan Roth of Seattle says the number of homeland security false-alarms is comparatively low.
"I dare say I have heard of no more than five or 10 incidents," said Roth, whose Web site currently lists more than 225,000 caches in 219 countries. "Police can always contact us and we'll tell them whether something is a registered geocache. And if they're still not comfortable with that, we tell them to blow it up. We don't want to be legally or, more importantly, morally liable if it indeed was a problem."
Many in the online community of geocachers fear that the sport could be banned from some areas because of the high-profile scares caused by ill-advised cache placements. A "Geocacher's Creed" has been posted on the Internet that asks participants to "avoid causing disruptions or public alarm."
Even when geocachers cause public alarm, criminal repercussions appear to be rare. In the case of Tintsman, whose geocache was attached high above the whitewater of Idaho's Payette River on the span of Rainbow Bridge, the local prosecutor filed a charge of placing debris on public property, a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of six months in jail and a $300 fine.
"It's like littering," said Valley County Attorney Matthew Williams. "Any statute with intent wouldn't work, because he clearly didn't intend it to be a bomb, and any statute with malicious injury to property wouldn't work, because he didn't injure the bridge."
Williams said he is not seeking jail time for Tintsman, who has yet to appear before a judge. But he would like to get restitution for the expense of the law enforcement and public safety response.
"I by no means want to see people stop geocaching because I know people who enjoy hiking with their families to find these things," said Williams. "But this was an unnecessary drain on our emergency resources by someone who should have followed the rules of the sport."
Tintsman's attorney, Joe Filicetti of Boise, said he's hoping to reach a deal with Williams that doesn't involve criminal sanctions. Tintsman said he is still avidly geocaching but is now more aware of how the caches may appear in a post-Sept. 11 landscape.
"I wasn't thinking about terrorism when I placed it under the bridge. I was thinking about making the most extreme cache possible," he said. "I just got carried away."