Prosecuting people who fake distress is getting more commonA man falls from a cliff into the ocean at Neahkanie, is injured, and makes a frantic call from his still-working cell phone while staying afloat in the surf.
"Cape Falcon, if you fall off of that, it's a couple hundred feet," said U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Astoria Commander John Turner. It didn't add up. It was suspicious from the get-go."
Still, the station launched two HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, and a boat from Station Tillamook Bay. Every call is treated seriously in a water environment because cold hypothermia can set in within 10 minutes.
Rescuers searched the area for 13 hours without success.
A dry Gregory Askew, 40, later turned himself in to law enforcement officials.
'It's $200,000 taken away from taxpayers. And taxpayers don't want to see their money wasted.'- Robert Lanier
Coast Guard public affairs officerTillamook County Sheriff's Office and Coast Guard Investigative Services are now investigating the case, potentially making it the third in an unusual string of hoax calls to which Astoria Air Station has responded.
"I think it's rare having these three hoax cases in a one-year span," said Turner, who flew on that mission and declined to go into the specifics of the case because of the on-going investigation.
Similar hoax calls have cost the Coast Guard hundreds of thousands of dollars each, a bill that taxpayers ultimately pay unless the perpetrators are caught.
In Astoria alone, 47 calls have appeared suspicious enough to be classified as possible hoaxes since 1999.
But the price is higher than jet fuel and staffing costs. Hoax calls can divert resources away from people who are truly in distress. They take money out of the Coast Guard budget that could be used for training, or time away from patrols.
And they unnecessarily risk the lives of Coast Guard crews.
Hoax prosecutionsJust two hoax rescue calls in the Pacific Northwest region have been successfully prosecuted during the last four years. But Coast Guard officers say prosecuting people who fake distress is getting more common.
New technology, including better direction-finding equipment, coupled with the rapid movement of information and an increased interest by prosecutors to aggressively pursue such cases, means hoaxers have little room to hide.
"We're definitely able to catch more," said Chief Paul Painter, operations center supervisor for Air Station Astoria. Painter has been in the Coast Guard for 20 years - 12 of them in search and rescue. "When I first started doing it, these guys were rarely caught. Now we can pin these guys down."
Hoax calls grabbed Oregon headlines in February and again in March.
Kenneth Warhust, a Vancouver, Wash., teenager, was convicted Feb. 4 for calling 9-1-1 dispatchers and saying he had information on mass terrorist activities, and that the Interstate Bridge would be blown up - information he knew to be false.
A month later, James Garrett Baldwin was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and ordered to pay $194,587 in restitution to the Coast Guard for making a hoax call claiming that he and his crew were abandoning their vessel, which was taking on water at the entrance to John's River, Wash.
LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian
Petty Officer 3rd Class Joe Villa closes up an electronic panel on the side of the Jayhawk.According to Petty Officer Robert Lanier, Coast Guard public affairs officer for the 13th district, of the 30,000 calls the Coast Guard responded to nationally in 2003, 31 were hoax calls. The prior year, 121 were true hoaxes, and in 2001, 153 were hoaxes.
For a call to be classified as a hoax, the caller must knowingly report a false maritime distress situation when one is not occurring and intend to deceive the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard receives many more false distress calls than hoax calls, about 400 a year in the Pacific Northwest, costing taxpayers more than $2 million. False calls can occur when an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon - basically a locating device on a boat - is activated accidentally, someone sees a flare being set off for reasons other than distress, a boater is overdue but not in distress, or when a third party perceives a threat that doesn't exist.
"Most if not all false distress calls are not prosecuted because there was not malicious intent to deceive the Coast Guard," Lanier said.
Horrendous weatherAir Station Astoria, whose coverage area extends from Cape Kiwanda in Oregon to the Queets River in Washington, was the lead agency in the John's River hoax, a call that took a bite not only out of Coast Guard resources, but took a toll on rescue personal like pilot, Lt. j.g. Monty Nijjar.
On Nov. 19, 2002, the search-and-rescue alarm sounded at around 1 a.m., waking Nijjar and his co-pilot. They caught the last bit of a mayday call: a man and his two passengers were taking on water at the entrance to John's River in Washington.
On a night when even the seagulls weren't flying, the radar altimeter on the helicopter, a device that shows the altitude above land or water, was malfunctioning. The crew struggled to gather gear, fix the mechanical problem and create a rescue plan - all the time well aware of the minutes ticking by.
Then the news came in that the people were abandoning the boat.
"We have to go," Nijjar remembered thinking. "We have to go out there and help those folks."
'We have to go. We have to go out there and help those folks.'- Monty Nijjar
pilotLuckily, the altimeter started working again. However, en route to the scene, the automatic flight control system failed, which means piloting the helicopter was like driving without automatic steering.
They kept going, batting 30-knot winds, a 100-foot ceiling, 500-yard visibility, driving rain and a forecast calling for heavy ice - weather Nijjar said is the worst he has ever flown in.
He and his three crewmates searched for four hours without finding any sign of a wreck. No debris, no oil, no coolers, no life jackets, no people.
When their fuel ran low, they were relieved by another helicopter team, which was later relieved by another.
As they headed back, Nijjar thought to himself, "Oh my God, we weren't able to get out here fast enough."
He called the next day to find out if the boaters had been found. By that time, there were enough clues to indicate the call was a hoax.
"It was pretty much like getting the wind knocked out of your sails," Nijjar said. "It was horrendous, the amount of risk we took. I remember going home and hugging my two daughters while they were sleeping. ... We're very lucky no one got hurt that night. The conditions were there."
Immeasurable costsIn addition to taking up the $17.5 million aircraft, Station Gray's Harbor deployed two 47-foot motor lifeboats and a safe boat during the course of the search, each with three to five crew members. The water was dangerously shallow in areas, and the crews were forced to navigate through swells and high winds.
The mission, which included three back-to-back helicopter launches totaling 15 hours of air time, drained the Coast Guard's response resources.
"It would have diminished our ability to respond in a real case," Turner said.
It took a six-digit bite out of the Coast Guard's budget, which has no money specifically earmarked for search and rescue. The number of responses the Coast Guard expects to conduct is factored into its budget, which is why hoax calls are so damaging.
"It could be Kevlar vests for people doing homeland security missions, fuel for a boat doing homeland security patrol, an extra hour of training," Lanier said. "It's $200,000 taken away from taxpayers. And taxpayers don't want to see their money wasted."
However, like an increasing number of hoaxers, Baldwin, who was making the calls from his truck where he was watching the whole operation, didn't get away with his deception.
Painter made a copy of the digital voice recording of the mayday call. He took it to the inmate in Gray's County whose name Baldwin had stolen. The man recognized Baldwin's voice and willingly fingered him.
With a maximum sentence, Baldwin could have been fined $250,000 and sent to prison for six years.
The $194,587 fine he incurred reflects only the monetary costs the Coast Guard assumed during the false rescue. It costs $10,719 an hour to fly a Jayhawk, which includes maintenance, fuel, wear and tear and crew time. The Guard's 47-foot motor lifeboats cost $2,300 and hour, and the 23-foot utility boats $1,400 per hour.
"It's amazing the amount of assets we can move," Painter said. "He's lucky we didn't move an aircraft carrier. It would have been a lot more expensive."
Even after the trial, no one really knows why Baldwin created such an elaborate hoax, used up Coast Guard resources and put other lives in danger.
"I don't know if it's mental issues or if they like to see the Coast Guard helicopters take off," Lanier said. "I heard that some people call buildings on fire just because they like to see the fire trucks."
Calls save livesThe recent hoax cases haven't changed the way the Coast Guard operates. They treat every call, even if it's uncorroborated, as if someone's life is on the line - because it often is. The Coast Guard rescued 6,035 people whose lives were in imminent danger in 2003, everyone from fishermen and beachcombers to cruise passengers and surfers. Group Astoria was responsible for 177 of those rescues. Group Astoria also assisted 2,077 people, giving them equipment, providing a tow, or fixing a mechanical problem.
Coast Guard officials emphasize that people should not be afraid to call the Coast Guard when they think they or someone else might be in distress. If launching on 200 false calls means they'll be alerted when the real call comes in, it's worth it, Painter said.
"Even if there is a lot of doubt, don't hesitate to call us," Turner added.
Painter said he knows the majority of North Coast residents value Coast Guard members and the dangerous jobs they do.
"People understand what the Coast Guard does, or know someone who has been rescued," he said. "There's an $8 million museum down there."
And for the few who don't, a news clipping from the successful Grays Harbor prosecution is pinned to the wall of Astoria's command center.
"We do catch them," Painter said.