What turned out to be a harmless object was suspicious enough to prompt law enforcement officials to order the evacuation of Marshall Walmart and bring in explosives experts from Whiteman Air Force Base Wednesday evening, June 20.
The device was discovered shortly before 5 p.m. by a Walmart employee. But it wasn't the appearance of the device alone that caused alarm, according to a police spokesman.
Marshall Police Public Information Officer Roger Gibson said surveillance cameras showed three male subjects behaving in a suspicious manner. After placing an object on a guardrail near the automotive department, the subjects re-entered the store.
(Eric Crump/Democrat-News) [Order this photo]
"We decided to err on the side of caution," he added. "You never know with these things."
The object, a tube wrapped in electrical tape with a small metal tab on one end, was located on the back side of the guard rail between the rail and one of the posts so that it was concealed from both sides of the guard rail. It could not be seen without crossing the guard rail and looking for it, according to Gibson.
Two units from Whiteman arrived just before 8 p.m. While bomb-sniffing canines helped search the store, explosives experts examined the object found outside, which they agreed was suspicious-looking, Gibson said.
The Whiteman team took about an hour to assess the situation. Team members used a robot to photograph the device, then X-rayed the object and determined it was harmless. Shortly after 9 p.m., the object was cut open.
"It was a geocache," Marshall Police Chief Mike Donnell said.
Geocaching is a "treasure" hunting game that uses the Internet and GPS information to locate objects.
The game is innocent enough, but Donnell said making an object look like an explosive device was a serious matter.
"It's a federal offense to create any device that appears to be a bomb," he said.
He noted that even though the incident turned out to be a false alarm, many people were inconvenienced, including Walmart shoppers and staff. The employees who were scheduled to work during the investigation stayed on scene, gathering in front of nearby Red Cross Pharmacy until the all-clear was given.
About 9:30 p.m. employees started heading back to the store after spending more than four hours cooling their heels.
Donnell said after surveillance video is reviewed, police will probably release more details about the subjects suspected of being involved in placing the object.
Walmart Manager Ryan Bowes said he was very impressed with the way store employees and law enforcement officers responded to the situation.
"I thought Marshall Police Department and the Sheriff's Office did a thorough job" managing the situation, he said. "We followed our procedures to a 'T,' and they did, too."
The store was evacuated in 15 minutes after Donnell determined evacuation was a necessary precaution, Bowes said.
"It's not something you want to go through, but we were prepared," he said.
Bowes said Marshall Walmart would no longer be used as a geocaching location. He said he has no objection to the game, but he wants to avoid problems like this incident.
"My biggest issue was it looked like something (dangerous)," he said.
The geocaching website notes that a former Walmart manager gave players permission to use the store as a caching site. The former manager was not available for comment Thursday morning.
Bowes said he was not aware of that arrangement.