The Mystery of the First to Find Society
By Mark Hall
Copyright 2016 74Blues Publishing
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Ms. Joyce Wilkes, Fullington Academy Librarian, retired. This wonderful young lady fed this kid books until he couldn’t consume any more.
I took the fishing rod from Chris with a look of aggravation. I looked down at the Abu Garcia bait casting reel and the unbelievable bird’s nest tangle of line coming from every direction. With a sigh, I took out my knife and just started cutting away at the line. Normally, I would try to work out the backlash but this very well could have been the worst I’ve seen. It was terrible.
“This is terrible” I said.
“Well, you know” he said, “I just don’t get the thumb thing”.
“Look,” I said, “just pick up that 33 and use it until I get this straight”.
“But that’s Brad’s” he responded.
“Brad isn’t with us and that was Brad’s when he was seven. It is almost impossible to get it to hang up or backlash or break”.
He picked up the rod and brushed off the old cobwebs that were there from the rod sitting in the garage for several months. It hadn’t been used much since Brad was now sixteen and using a bait casting reel like the one I was working on. It sat in the garage through winter and now we were sitting in a boat outside of Marshallville at my Uncle Danny’s pond. It was early March and I was trying to coach Chris on the finer points of bass fishing. Apparently, fishing was not in his upbringing wherever that had been. He had been dropped into my life a couple years ago as part of the witness protection program. I am a US Marshal based out of Macon and since he was my charge, I set him up near my own home in Warner Robins and got him a job down at Ace Hardware in Perry but that hadn’t lasted long because we discovered he had talents.
These talents or gifts or training had been unbelievable at first when he started helping out law enforcement around the area. He was amazing in his ability to see things that might have happened, especially in that mess with the dogfighters and again with the copper thieves and their operation down on Echeconnee creek. We have kept him out of the news but it has been difficult given the number of calls we keep getting from law enforcement friends needing help. His reputation was getting around in sheriff departments and the GBI and I was more and more concerned about keeping his identity secret. Marshals don’t handle witness protection but that night he got delivered was unique; more like protecting a person than witness protection. No paperwork, no names, just a call from my boss directing me to take him in from the people dropping him off. He didn’t know who this guy was and I sure didn’t either.
We gave him the name Chris Calhoun and went from there but he was as much a mystery then as he is now. He had some experience in forensics and detection, which was obvious. But he was clearly inexperienced in field work so I wasn’t sure what his life had been. He wasn’t from here and that was obvious, too. Where I am a poster for middle-aged, divorced, country boy; he was clearly not. I like to eat and not exercise and he ate a lot of vegetables and jogged all the time. I have a short haircut of whatever hair is left up there and he had longer brown hair that fell over his eyes all the time. He seemed to enjoy pulling it out of his face and grinning at me. He took his cap off and brushed the hair back then put it back on – all while smiling at me.
“You can have hair or you can catch fish but not both” I said. I finally put up the rod I was working on and started swapping out the lure I was using, a Shad Rap made to imitate a small bait fish. I clipped the line and tied on a hook then reached into the tackle box and came out with a lime green lizard.
“What is that, a salamander?” Chris asked.
“Salamander, lizard, whatever.” I answered as I casted out toward the bank. I began my slow retrieve back over and between the few lily pads on that side of the boat.
“Know why bass hit lizards?” I asked.
Just at that moment an explosion of force hit the lizard I was reeling in and I jerked back on the rod to set the hook. The bass fought against the line but I was able to reel her in and a minute or so later was holding her up and smiling at my friend.
“Why do bass hit lizards?” Chris asked.
“Meanness” I said, “just out of meanness. They hate ‘em.”
An hour or so later, I received a call from a Department of Natural Resources friend up on Butts County, Laura Brock. There had been a death at High Falls, the state park right off Interstate 75.
“Somebody playing on the rocks?” I asked.
“Maybe so”, she answered, “but there is something you need to see. And bring your friend”.
My friend, of course, was Chris who has been becoming known in law enforcement areas. Especially DNR since that mess on the Echeconnee last summer.
“Like what kind of something I need to see?”
“This guy had on scuba gear”.
“Was it at the falls or in the lake?” I asked, guessing the lake.
“I doubt he was in the lake. I am not sure where he started but we found him at the base of the falls just before the old mill site”.
“The water’s up, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s up pretty good with all this rain we’ve had lately”.
I filled Chris in on our conversation on the way to High Falls State Park which is ten minutes or so above Forsyth and about an hour from where we were. It is a favorite getaway spot for families in the area with its scenic waterfalls, picnic area and camping, and High Falls Lake.
The road to High Falls runs over the top of the Towaliga River which feeds the lake and falls. People were gathered on the sidewalk of the bridge overlooking the crime scene. We turned just before the bridge to the driveway that leads to the old mill. The road drops down and pretty good rate with the river on the right just next to the old brick and concrete mill. There were dozens of deputies and DNR folks up and down and around the river and the mill area. The coroner’s van was already there. A deputy motioned for us to drive over to the left side parking area. When we got out of my truck, the roar of the river falling down on the rocks through dozens of smaller cascades and falls was so loud we almost had to yell at each other to be heard.
Laura met us as we walked up to the crime scene. She was a short, blonde, and tanned from being outside everyday even though it was March. We’d known each other for quite some time as this lake was a favorite of mine.
“I know this isn’t one for the Marshal Service but I heard about what you two did down on the Echeconnee and I thought this might be interesting to you”, she shouted then leaned over to Chris, “and you’d be helpful to us. The Sheriff is here and he agreed”.
I introduced Chris to her. “Have they moved him yet?” Chris asked over the roar.
“They were just about to” Laura replied. She was clearly looking at him for a little bit longer than normal. Chris just seemed to look out of place sometimes in the circles we ran in from time to time. Whereas jeans and thick short-sleeved shirts and boots are the usual uniform for me and most my friends, his were much more fashionable for downtown than outside of town. I finally got him a pair of boots for days like this because I was tired of hearing him whine about messing up his loafer or whatever they’re called.
We made our way down to the body which had been pulled up on to the grassy bank just in the shadow of the mill by the campers who found him. I have been down on this side of the river many times when camping with my son and I figured the water level was a good five or six feet above its normal bank. Not flooding but certainly high. The water in this section of the Towaliga is deadly; the river flows over an exposed rocky bed that dips into pools and also hides sharp boulders and debris like stumps or tree limbs. The river widens, too, in high water – I guessed it was a good 200 to 250 across to the other side. This was one long series of cascades and pools; we were probably two hundred yards from the bridge and another two hundred to the lake.
Chris went straight to the body and I walked over to the Sheriff, Gerald Taylor. I wanted to deflect some of the attention from Chris to avoid too many questions. After a few minutes of looking over the body, Chris looked downstream then up at the falls. The water was high and roaring past with tremendous volume. I know some kayakers can play in this stuff but I had never heard of anyone trying to scuba in it.
The dead man was on his back with his feet a few feet from the river. He had been drug up there by his shoulders and was lying there in a way that you might have thought he was sleeping. He was a young man, barely 20 I thought, and had on full scuba gear with a small tank that wasn’t on his back but lying on the ground next to him. He was covered in a lycra suit and his mask was pulled to the top of his head. The mask front was cracked down the middle and he had a smartphone strapped to his wrist. It was in a waterproof case but had taken a beating and was cracked, full of water and certainly not working.
Upstream, there was a series of enormous rocks that has not been hidden by the rising water. Chris walked over the bank on this side and climbed out onto the rocks. He continued to look upstream, then back to the body in a repeated motion. Chris walked out into the trees and came back with a couple pinecones which he threw into the water and watched flow downstream. After a few minutes of this, he came back to the body and kept walking down the downstream bank. While the river was still high, the falls ended right at this point and the Towaliga flattened and slowed after the mill section.
“Has it been moved?” he asked.
“Just up to the bank”, Sheriff Taylor replied. “Who are you?” he asked.
“That’s Chris Calhoun, Sheriff, he’s with us” I answered. Not entirely untrue; witness protection could be a part of the US Marshal Service. The sheriff looked over at me. I wasn’t sure if he suspected anything but if he did, he shelved it for another day. He was a well-known and likeable sheriff, having served Butts County for a long time. He was certainly old school; always with two things – his Stetson and his Red Man.
“What do you think happened?” I asked the Sheriff.
“Damned if I know. This guy doesn’t have any id on him that we can see and everyone registered to camp is accounted for. All the folks with vehicles up on the day parking lot are accounted for as well. Whoever he is, he walked up. I couldn’t tell you what he was doing in that river this morning”, he added before spitting into the river.
“Or last night”, Chris added.
The sheriff turned to Chris, “or last night” he repeated, pushing his hat back on his head. “But that makes it even more odd. If I haven’t learned anything these past 35 years, it’s to never be surprised at what people are up to”, he paused, “especially at night.”
We spent several hours there walking either bank and trying to piece together what happened. Chris looked up and down the river several dozen times, went back to the body, and we met back up with Laura at the truck in the parking lot. The popularity of the park made it impossible to determine how he walked into the river and from what bank – there were tracks everywhere from the several hundred visitors the park sees each week.
“This one has me, Chris” I said, “I can’t figure out what he was doing here.”
“It is strange”, he answered, “but there was something in that river he was after. Something specific. He wasn’t just swimming around.”
“How do you figure that?” Laura asked.
“Well, he doesn’t have flippers on; he has on swim shoes, and the expensive ones, too. Those aren’t the cheap ones, they are thick rubber soled, made for walking in rivers for fly fishing or whatever. He was walking around but expected to be under water for a brief time, that’s why he had the tank with him and why it wasn’t on his back. He carried it.”
“Hmmm”, Laura answered.
“And I don’t think he was just trying to walk across the river just to see if he could walk across. There are at least three other routes he could take across the river that would have gotten him across. I think he was very specific about his location. That smartphone he had? Why take it with you? For a picture or a call? No. I think it was for the compass or the GPS to find a specific location in the river.”
“I think he was out on that river somewhere, looking for something, then slipped and tumbled and hit face first into one of those rocks out there that knocked him out and he drowned. His mask shows a crack that was caused by the fall. I also think he was alone.”
“How do you figure he was alone?” I asked.
“Because the campers drug him out, not his partner” Chris answered.
“That river is in no condition for us to start looking in it to figure out what he was after. We are going to have to wait until it calms down. A lot.” I said.
I hate to say it but we never could figure out what was going on in that case. This puzzle bothered Chris for several weeks. We did find a four wheeler on the Bennett Farm that borders the state park to the southwest and his truck was found several miles up the road where he had parked, unloaded the four wheeler, then rode onto the Bennett Farm and walked in from there. His name turned out to be John Schlottman, a Delta Airlines employee from Griffin. Nothing in his background gave us any information we might have used. He was a part-time student at Southern Crescent Technical College at night, and drove in to the Atlanta airport for work each day. He was a stand-up guy by all accounts, a good kid who liked the outdoors and was once a scout. After interviews with friends and family, a review of his bank records, his phone and email, his work history, all of those gave no indication as to why that man had decided to the walk out into the middle of an angry river in the middle of the night.
When the water dropped, teams of DNR agents scoured the river and rocks as best they could but the only item they turned up was the head lamp he must have used.
A couple months later, in the first of May on a Thursday, Chris and I were eating at Waffle House for lunch when my phone rang. When I looked at the name I recognized it as an old friend in a related law enforcement field, Cory Alexander. Cory had been the lead on the ground when we raided a dogfighting operation some time ago – Chris’ coming out party, so to speak.
“Hey there, Cory. You ought to be with us this afternoon, we’re –“
“I have trouble”, he said, cutting me off.
“What’s going on”?
“I need you and that boy Chris to come with you out here to Mr. William Sullivan’s place out here outside of Hawkinsville off of 26. You know where I mean?” Cory was a big, muscular man and just about everyone to him was ‘boy’.
“Did we shoot birds out there in his pasture several years ago?”
“That’s the place” he answered.
“Everything alright? What’s going on?” I motioned for Chris to pay the bill.
“My nephew Landon got run over by Mr. William’s bull a couple hours ago. He trampled him pretty good. It didn’t kill him but he is in really bad shape.”
“Aw man, Chris. What was he doing in Mr. William’s pasture?” Mr. William’s kids were grown and he didn’t have any teenagers in his house Landon’s age.
“That’s why I need you and that boy Chris to come out” he answered.
“We ought to be there in half an hour” I answered.
Several minutes later, we pulled off the road toward the Sullivan farm and I noticed several trucks across the road from the house at the corral where Mr. William’s cows were fed and loaded. The idea is that if you feed cows inside this wooden fence structure then when it came time to take some to market, or let the vet look at them you’d be able to feed them then shut the gate behind them and have them all in one place. The pasture sprawled out in every direction from the corral, taking up nearly a hundred acres. The sun was out and it was a fantastic spring day.
“Geez what an animal” Chris said as we walked up. He looked a little out of place among the farmer’s family and law enforcement folks but at least he had on boots. Cory walked up and shook hands with us.
“Thanks for coming out here, Mark”, he said. He was a solid guy and a good six inches taller than I am. We’ve known each other for several years.
“Not a problem” I replied. We walked up to the fence and it was clear that Chris had seen was an enormous Hereford bull. These bulls are usually a red color with a white belly and chest with a white face. This bull was well clear of a thousand pounds, probably nearly fifteen hundred. There was a group of farm hands and neighbors around the corral, some standing, some sitting on the fence but everyone was looking at the bull and talking.
Cory filled us in. His nephew had been over the fence and inside the pasture and was run over by this bull. Luckily for him, this one was polled, or hornless, or he wouldn’t even be in the hospital now. I wasn’t sure why he called us but I was sure there was a good reason. There must be more to it than I knew.
“I don’t know what he was doing out here, Mark. He was just down the road here a bit past the house and climbed over the barb wire with a bucket of sweet feed. Of course the bull run over him a couple times but some sort of way he was able to get back through the fence, I think through the strands rather than over the thing. He is at Taylor Regional with a broken shoulder at least. The good news is that he was able to call his Daddy before he passed out and they got to him and got him to the hospital. They’ve got him sedated now so he can’t really tell us anything.”
“Maybe he was lucky” I said.
“Very” Cory replied. “Landon is a good boy, never been in any trouble. None. Straight A’s, boy scout, baseball player, the whole thing. I don’t know why he’d do such a dumb thing”.
“Or who might have put him up to it?” Chris asked.
“I thought of that, too, but the crowd he runs with are all the same kind of boys. Never any trouble. I don’t know.” Cory answered.
“Motivation”, Chris added. “We need to find out what motivated him. This isn’t just a bunch of guys riding around and deciding to go play matador. If he had a bucket with feed in it, he planned on being out here.”
“I already know why” Cory answered. “Take a look at that bull”.
“He’s huge” I said.
“Look closer, around his neck.”
Chris and I were already around the wooden fence of the corral so we stepped up on a rail and looked over in the pen. Unfortunately, all we had a view of was the opposite end of his neck. Cory motioned for one of the farm hands to turn him, which meant he jumped down in the corral with him and walked around the fence. The bull followed him around then pivoted around until he faced us. Once he did, it was easier to see the thin string, probably not more than a quarter of an inch round, looped around his neck. Dangling from the bottom of the string was a tube that looked like one of those old film canisters.
Chris leaned way out into the corral; so far I thought he might fall over in there.
“We need to talk to the owner” he said.
“That’s Mr. William Sullivan over there” Cory motioned back toward a truck that was backing a cattle trailer up to a gate in the corral. We walked over to Mr. William as he got out of the truck.
“Pull the gate to the trailer, Jimmy” he said to a farm hand. “We don’t have a head gate wide enough for him to get through but we might can load him on the trailer and get him in the front section and hem him up a little in there. You see there is a section gate about halfway down”.
Chris asked, “You ever have anything like this happen before?”
Mr. William looked over Chris, I am sure wondering what fit he was in all of this. I shook hands with him and introduced Chris to him then he turned to me to answer the question.
“Never” he said, “especially not toting a bucket. Every once in a while someone will get the idea to go tip them over at night but that just about never happens. We have a bigger problem with folks shooting deer from the road. Is sure am sorry for what happened, Cory.”
“Wasn’t anything you did, Mr. William”, Cory replied, “or your bull. I guess it was something to do with him trying to get that thing off his neck there.”
“I suppose” Mr. William said.
“Has this bull been corralled recently where someone could get to him?” Chris asked.
“No, sir. He’s been out in either this pasture or the lower pasture for the past,” he took a long breath while he thought, “I think the past two or tthree months. We’ve rode out and checked on the cows and brought the hay to them – checked on the calves, you know, the usual stuff. Me nor none of my boys have noticed that thing around his neck. I’ll be danged if I know how it got there.”
By now the farm hands were loading the big bull onto the trailer and he went right on up without too much trouble. The trailer and the truck shook as he stepped into the trailer. Guys on the outside then swung the inside gate and he went on to the front. With the second gate inside the trailer shut, he barely had room to turn around and we could get a good look at his neck and what was hanging from it.
It appeared to be a piece of nylon string looped just wide enough to get around his neck and behind his ears. At the bottom of the string was a small canister and the string ran through the top of it. It was metal and not plastic as I first thought.
“Well, reach on in there and grab it” I said to Chris. He looked at me as if he might disagree with my suggestion. If you’ve ever seen the front end of a bull, you’d know there was a lot of snot and slobber there.
We were saved that discomfort as Mr. William reached in with his pocketknife and cut the rope and the canister fell to the wooden boards. They opened the gate and the truck and trailer shook again as the big bull exited. Mr. William reached in and picked it up and passed it to Cory. When he twisted open the cap, he reached into it and pulled out a single slip of paper. He looked at it then passed it to me. I read the series of letters and numbers that were printed on the paper: FTFS1024543. We passed it around Chris held it last. He held it up to the sunlight and turned it in different directions. He even smelled it.
“Does it smell like cow?” Mr. William asked.
Chris grinned and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “It does”, he said. “But there is something interesting about this paper and this code.”
“Code?” Cory asked.
“Certainly a code. It must be something that means something to another person other than Landon and it is very deliberate, this entire plan. Somebody got close enough to this animal to put this around his neck. Before that, this was thought out and this code was determined to communicate something – like an award. You know when you open a soda and there is a code under the cap? Or when you get your receipt at a restaurant and the receipt comes with a code to enter for a prize or something. There is definitely an intention for Landon or someone to get this capsule from his neck and do something with the code.”
“That’s why he had the bucket”, I added. “And don’t say soda” I whispered.
“Exactly. A few things we have to figure out without Landon’s help because he isn’t able to talk to anyone and might not be for a while. First, what this code might mean – if it means anything – and how or when that got around his neck and who did it.”
“Mr. William, is there any idea when this got around his neck?” I asked.
“Not a one, Mark. I know we brought them all in the barn back in January when it got to sleeting for a couple days but since then, I don’t know. I know I’ve seen him up here by the trough a time or two when we feed them during this last month but didn’t notice that thing around his neck and I think I would have. Last time he was up was last week, on Thursday, I think.”
I asked, “Maybe Landon was the one putting it on there? Maybe that’s why he had the bucket – not to take it but to place it?”
“I don’t think so” Chris answered, “but does this remind you of anything, Mark? That business up at High Falls?”
They were similar, I thought. A reasonable young man in a place he should not have been, going after something.
Chris continued, “I bet that a similar canister was placed in that river somewhere and John Schlottman died trying to find it. Both of these boys had been scouts, you said?”
“That’s right” Cory answered, “Landon was, yes, but this isn’t scout behavior?”
“That’s true but that might be the link between the two that helps us figure this thing out”.
We talked with the others for a time then decided to head over to the office at my house in Warner Robins and we picked up supper from Georgia Bob’s on the way. My office at home was essentially a folding table, a desk with a laptop and a few bookshelves. Chris got online to try to find the code listed on a website at some site. Apparently, that code is the part number for a water pump on a Kubota tractor, but that was not what we were after. In between bites of pimento cheese sandwiches, I tried to work out the connection.
“Ok, what do boy scouts do that might lead them to this” I thought out loud, “they spend a lot of time outdoors. They learn to build fires, read maps, shoot firearms. What else?”
Chris grinned. “That might be it” he said.
“What might be it?” I asked, “building fires is related to chasing bulls and walking through a flooded river?”
“Get on the phone and get the internet history from John Schlottman’s smartphone. We can ask Landon when he wakes up but I think we might find what we need on Schlottman’s. It was torn up but the history should still be recorded.”
I knew the history had been retrieved already which is a standard procedure in a case like that. A half hour or so later, we pulled up the email attachment with the internet history. Chris scanned through it for a few minutes and plugged in a few of the websites listed.
“There we go” he said after several minutes.
“What have you got?” I asked.
“Geocaching” he replied.
“A what?” I asked.
“Geocaching. Schlottman was involved with geocaching, you know where someone plants a container of some kind then posts the general location with GPS, then a hint about where the container might be”.
“Am I stupid if I don’t know?” I asked.
“You’re stupid whether you know or not”, Chris grinned, “but let me show you how it all works”. He pushed his hair out of his eyes. I was sure when he did that it was a stab at me for not having hair and not knowing what he was talking about.
I walked over to the laptop and saw a map of Warner Robins. There were dozens of little icons on the map and when Chris hovered over each of them with the mouse, a message appeared.
Chris explained, “each of these has a name, see? ‘What a drag!’, ‘Dunk on it’, ‘The Car Doctor’. When I click on one of them, you see it gives me the GPS coordinates and other information about the cache. This one named ‘What a drag!’ is listed as low difficulty, and easy terrain.”
“That’s over there by the high school where the old drag strip used to be” I said, pointing at the screen, “oh, I get the name now. So people just drive out there and walk all in the woods looking for…what?”
“Not exactly. Part of the unspoken rules of this stuff is that you aren’t supposed to be seen going after these caches. You have to do it subtly. There are a dozen, at least a dozen, apps you can get on your smartphone that will give you the map to a cache. These apps will get you within ten or fewer feet to the cache then you have to look around it based on the clues that are given.”
“What are they looking for, exactly? What kind of cache?”
“Some of these caches are an old ammunition box or a plastic container smaller than a shoe box. Some of them are the size of that canister we got off that bull. When you find the cache, there is usually a slip of paper for you to sign and some folks leave a little trinket or something in every one they find. Sort of like treasure hunting.”
“And sort of like trespassing” I said. “I am pretty sure the property owners aren’t the ones putting these things out there”.
“True but most of these will say they have permission”.
“Ok, right there is says ‘congratulations to medic44 for FTF. Received a $10 Sonic gift card.’. What is FTF and how many gift cards are in it?” I asked.
“All right. FTF is an acronym for First to Find, meaning what it sounds like, the first person to find the cache. Sometimes the creator of the cache will put a little prize in it for the FTF. In these geocaching circles, the FTF is a big deal; you have to be very aware of when caches are published to be able to beat others to it to be the first to find it.”
“So then what”, I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if I am the FTF for ‘come and find me cache’, then what?”
“Well nothing, really. You are just recorded as being the FTF for that cache. Other people into this will recognize that you have so many FTF’s or whatever. How many big fish have you caught?”
“How many big fish, bass, have you caught?”
“I don’t know, you mean over eight pounds? A few I guess.”
“Who has caught more than you?”
“Johnny Thompson back home, no doubt about it.”
“Ok, how many has Johnny caught?” he asked.
“Aw, Mr. Johnny? Several” I answered.
“How many, though?”
“I don’t know, but a lot”
Chris grinned, “That’s my point. You don’t know how many but he has a reputation for the number of big bass he has caught. Same thing with this FTF. Everybody is after the big bass and when they catch it, word gets out and they get some acclaim. Enough big bass and they develop a reputation”.
“I completely get it now. Achieving a First to Find is cool and some are more difficult than others, based on that rating right there. The tougher the cache, the more prestigious the FTF.”
“Absolutely. On the other side of this is the person hiding the cache. They also have a reputation for the caches they place. Where is the best pond for catching big bass?”
“The Jeter pond, no doubt about it”, I answered, “So cache hiders are as well-known as the finders. So everyone knows to be on the lookout when so-and-so posts a cache. I am guessing the higher difficulty and higher terrain labels are the most prestigious.”
“Exactly. But here is where we run into trouble. There are dozens of websites that post locations of caches and none of them are going to post a cache that is hung around a bull’s neck or somehow in the middle of the High Falls river when the water is high. They just won’t do it.”
He continued, “So we need to find what site is being used for posting caches or how else the information for the cache was being shared. I believe it must be through a website because of the code we found on the bull. The FTF would take the paper and enter it on a website or something. And at first look here on these records, I don’t see any site like that.”
“We need to talk to Landon” I said. “But not tonight”.
First thing the next morning, I called Cory to get an update on Landon and the good news was that he was waking up enough to talk. We drove over to the hospital in Hawkinsville to check on him but also to find some answers if we could get them.
When we got there, Cory was already there and we spoke to him in the hallway. We told him we might have an idea of the direction of this thing and asked whether he thought Landon was up for talking.
“He should be, I think, but some of what he says might not make sense. He is a little drugged up.” Cory answered.
We walked into the room and I shook hands with his mom and dad, and got their permission to ask a few questions. Landon was sitting up in his bed.
“I got trucked, Mr. Mark” he said.
“You got trucked for sure” I answered.
“You gonna arrest me?” he asked.
“I thought about it but it ain’t illegal to be a knucklehead”.
“You are going to apologize to Mr. William”, his dad said.
“Yes, sir” Landon replied.
Chris asked “Landon, were you trying to FTF that cache?”
He looked around at his parents then back at Chris. ”Yes, sir”, he replied.
“What is ‘FTF that cache’?” his mom asked.
Landon sighed and said, “I was trying to join the society.”
“The what?” I asked.
“I was trying to join the FTF Society. It is a big deal and like impossible to get into. The caches are ridiculous. The one with Mr. William’s bull would have got me in.”
“Tell me about this FTF Society, Landon. Who runs it?” Cory asked.
“I don’t know” he answered, “there’s a website and they post D6T6K6 caches. The first one there posts the code they find to the site and they get in the Society.”
“I thought it was D5T5 for a difficulty level 5 and a terrain level 5 and that was as high as they went?” I asked and looked at Chris, “Wasn’t that what you told me?”
“Yes, sir” Landon replied, “these are so bad they have to go to level 6!”
“What’s the K6 part?” Chris asked.
“That’s the chance you might get killed” Landon answered.
“Son…..” his dad muttered.
“Who is behind it? Who runs it?” Cory asked again.
“I don’t know, Uncle Cory. You wouldn’t ever see them, they just post your profile name on their site and you become a legend.”
“You become an idiot” Cory said.
“And if we can point this FTF Society back to that High Falls business from a couple months ago, there is someone out there guilty of killing John Schlottman.” Chris added.
“And Matt Peavey” Landon added.
We all turned to look at Landon.
“Who?” Cory asked.
“Matt Peavey was a guy from Dublin trying to get in the society, they say. He got hit by car up in Macon where I-75 and I-16 split. The cache was on the ground at the split and it went hot at 4:30 on a Friday. Mocache-momoney was the FTF for that one.”
“I remember that”, I said, “I don’t think they ever knew why he was out there. Have you ever met any of the other people looking for caches?”
“Yes, sir, a few times. But never anybody who said they were the ones hiding caches for the FTF Society.”
“Did anyone ever FTF the one at High Falls?”
“I don’t think so, not yet. There were a few DNF’s.”
“Did Not Find. You post that if you go out there and can’t find it or get to it”.
“What’s the site?” Chris asked.
Landon gave us the web address which didn’t make any sense like a normal website would. The www was followed by a series of letters that didn’t make any sense, at least to us: sgsfbpvrgl.com. Landon said the site was spread by word of mouth and not something that Google or a casual web surfer might stumble across.
“ROT13”, Chris said, “it is code called ROT13 which means the letters of the alphabet are rotated at the 13th letter. The letter A equals N, B equals O and vice-versa. Replace the letters and you get www.ftfsociety.com. It is a common code used for giving hints for cache locations.”
“How did you know that?” Cory asked then added, “Nevermind. I don’t want to know.”
“I wrote a test in ROT13 one time” Chris grinned. I am not sure if he knew he had revealed something about his past; that was going to be something we would have to talk about later. But it did somewhat confirm one of my suspicions about his past life. He had once said to me that the best way to learn something was to teach it, and that got me thinking.
We thanked Landon for answering our questions and drove back to my office in Warner Robins. I called into our cyber crime division and got them to tracking down the location of the origin of the site. Cory met us at the office not long after we settled in at my laptop again. We pulled up the FTF Society website and saw more of the same ROT13 code – everything posted there was in ROT13 which made it aggravating. After translating the code, we saw a list of several caches and the profile names of those who were the first to find that cache. There was a much longer list of usernames with DNF. The site was a no-frills site, black letters on a white background and that was it. If someone had come across this site, they might have passed it off as a different language or a failing CIS student site. On the right of the screen, there was a box below what we recognized as latitude and longitude. I plugged the coordinates into my map app on my smartphone.
“That’s the back end of the pasture at Mr. William’s” I said. “That is what would have led geo-caching people to the bull.”
Chris deciphered the code above and below the two boxes. “The title for this cache is ‘Bovine Bully’. It gives D6T6K6 and the hint that says ‘Don’t get trucked’, which is the first thing Landon said to you.”
“That isn’t too uncommon a phrase. What are the boxes for, you think?”
Chris pulled the note out of his pocket from the canister that was hanging on the bull’s neck. He typed the code into the first box and then some other series of letters into the second and pressed the enter key. Nothing happened for several minutes – Chris refreshed the site a few times but nothing changed.
The next time Chris refreshed the site, almost a half hour later, there was a change. Chris grinned.
“It looks like we just joined the FTF Society” he said, “but our username got changed.”
“We have a user name?” I asked.
“Not really. I entered in the code from the bull with the user name ‘caughtyou’. But the username listed with that cache has been changed to ‘neverwill’. It seems we know a couple things about the person behind all this.”
“We know he is smart to come up with these caches and hide them without getting himself killed. We know that he carefully plans each of these weeks or months in advance. We know he has some skill with his hands or at the least has a great deal of outdoor experience. We know he can host his own website and that he looks at it frequently when a cache has recently been posted. We also know he is very sure of himself to change our username like that. But there is something else.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Chris continued. “He does this out of meanness. He is deliberately posting caches that could kill people. They are more than just difficult or hard to get to – he added a rating that shows the likelihood of the cache actually killing someone. He relishes the DNFs because he lists them. Then there’s ‘Bovine Bully’. This guy is mean or wants to be mean or a bully. And I don’t think this is the end of it, either. He’ll post another one.”
“How do you figure he plans these out in advance?” Cory asked.
“When could he have possibly put a canister or a box in the falls? He absolutely had to do it when the water was really low like during the summer. Then he waits until that particular weekend to post the coordinates, when the water was several feet high making it virtually impossible to get to it. Out of meanness and dang near evil.”
“Certainly criminal” I added. “The way I see it, we have to get a look at the back end of that site to track where it is originating from then we can get there and catch him”.
“I don’t think he will give us that long” Chris replied, “but I do think he might be more into this to the point he makes himself vulnerable.”
“Yes. My guess is that he was one of the campers up at High Falls when that cache was posted, so he could see people trying to find it and suffering through what he had set up. He was likely down in the woods the night he set off that cache that Landon tried to FTF. You can bet that if he plans these so far in advance that he already has the next one in place, ready to go or at least ready with little effort on his part.”
“If you think that is right then we can watch this site for the next one and beat him to it” Cory said.
“It isn’t beating him to the cache. It is going to be a matter of finding him at or near the site where he could watch people fail at trying to FTF. Unfortunately, we can’t possibly know where the next cache might be and someone could FTF it before we can get there. There could be dozens of people watching this site for when he turns on a cache.”
“When might he turn it on?” Cory asked.
“I am not sure but I doubt it would be long. If this guy plans like he does and is as web-savvy as we think he might be, I can’t believe he is going to stay put where he can be caught. He is probably both putting the next cache in motion and packing up to leave at the same time. If the cyber crimes folks can get to him, great, but we need to respond to whatever cache comes up, whenever it comes up.”
I called back up to the cyber crimes and made them aware of all this so they can track any activity on the site and let us know when the next one comes up. You can’t know how many people are involved in several divisions throughout law enforcement in each state on each and every case. Hundreds of people work every day, sometimes all day, in support of investigation.
We called over to Landon to confirm the things we had found out about the site, which he did. I told him that we had posted a bogus username as the FTF which got a laugh out of him. He was going to be fine but I doubt he looks at steak the same way again.
Through the night and into the next morning we waited for news from cyber crimes but didn’t hear anything. Cory left us that morning for the hospital again and I had to run up to my office in Macon after lunch to file a report and after that, we rode on the east side of town for a quick visit to the state court. We were just pulling down Mulberry Street when the phone rang from cyber crimes. The site had been edited and they had just raided the house where the site had been maintained. Chris was right, as usual. The house was empty except for a single computer, not even the monitor was left. It was rented out for the past year, paid in cash, to a man named Shane Reff. That was a name I didn’t think was real.
Chris said, “Hand me that list of campers registered at High Falls at the time of that first murder”.
I passed him the list and wrote down the updated information from the FTF Society site. We got the next and possibly last, cache information. The GPS coordinates were latitude: 32.840069 and longitude : -83.607384. I plugged that into the map on my phone and immediately realized how lucky we were.
“That’s barely ten minutes from here!” I exclaimed. “At the Indian Mounds!”
“Let’s go, then!” Chris yelled and we got in the truck and headed that direction. I explained that the Ocmulgee National Monument was a series of Native American mounds that spread over nearly a thousand acres just further east outside of town.
“I don’t know what could be dangerous over there”, I said. “There are the mounds and a gum swamp but not anything that would present a threat. There’s the river but it isn’t at a bad stage. I don’t know.”
Chris said, “Keep your lights off and let’s get there quietly. If this thing is now available to the others trying to FTF into the Society, then if we make a fuss it will run them off, and Shane Reff, too. He’s there, I am sure, and he should know that we’ll be there, too.
Chris took my phone and looked at the map. “What did cyber say the message was on the cache?” he asked.
“Aw heck, I don’t know. Look it up on the site – I was in too big a hurry to remember.”
Chris pulled it up on his phone. “Here it is. ‘FTF Finale’ is the title. The message says ’30 under cache drops at 4:07. Ammo box’.”
“What in the heck does that mean?” I asked. “4:07 is one hour from right now”.
“Let’s get to the park and go from there”.
We got there a couple minutes later and Dean Woodruff, the park ranger I called, met us in the parking lot. We filled him in one what was going on as we walked the concrete path toward the Earth Lodge. We went in the structure to try to make it look like we were visitors and not actually trying to catch someone, or find the cache.
“Ammo box?” Dean asked. “does he plan to shoot people?”
“No”, Chris answered, “the ammo box is the cache. Some of these are the size of a pill bottle, some are those magnetic key holders, and some are the size of a lunch box or an ammo box. Shooting is not what this guy wants to do. He wants to make a trap – and that is what it is – and I think he wants to watch it work.”
“How many people are out here right now?” Chris asked.
“It’s hard to say.” Dean replied, “There are three parking areas including the main lot at the museum where you parked. But based on the cars there and how it usually is this time of day on a Friday, there could be twenty, maybe thirty?”
“Is there anything out here that could be fatal, either accidentally or on purpose?” I asked Dean.
“The mounds are a little high but the bottom of them is wider than the top – if you jumped off, you’d just roll to the bottom. There are the stairs that lead up the mound, too. We have snakes occasionally?”
“The swamp?” Chris asked.
“Right now the water isn’t up so at the deepest it might be five or six feet near the beaver dam, maybe. But that is well on the back side of the property. There’s the river.”
“But it isn’t up right now either and that section of the Ocmulgee is slow moving anyway” I said. “What else is there? A radio tower? An old well or something? Anything?”
Just then Dean’s face went pale. “The train track”, he said. “The train runs through every day right at 4:00.”
“This GPS says we are about 425 feet from the cache” I said. “What part of the track is that close to us?”
“The bridge” Dean answered. “Right along this path toward the earth mound.”
“Remember”, Chris said, “Shane Reff is probably here and most likely watching everything going on with this cache. We can’t do anything that would scare him off but we have no idea what he looks like.”
We walked out of the Earth Lodge and followed the concrete path as I watched the GPS. Sure enough, when we arrived at the bridge entrance, we were 60 feet from the position. The tracks ran east and west so of course the bridge ran north and south. There was a couple with a child on the bridge looking down at the train tracks and another man was on the far side of the bridge walking toward us. In the grassy area between the bridge and the main mound were four or five people in two groups. I could just make out movement on the top of the mound so there were people there, too.
We looked around casually for anyone watching the bridge. I walked out and halfway across the GPS beeped at me to let me know I had arrived at the coordinates. I kept walking to keep from looking too suspicious and sat on a bench just past the bridge. I opened up the park brochure Dean brought us and tried to make it look like I was reading it.
As I looked to the north back at the bridge, I noticed how it was built. It was an iron-framed bridge with wood flooring. The metal frame of the sides were railed like a fence but covered in something like chain link. These sides extended straight up for about seven feet then curved toward the middle a few feet, making it difficult for someone were they to try to climb over. The train tracks cut through the hill and ran under the bridge in a straightaway that extended for another half mile or more to the east.
When I crossed the bridge, I noticed the west end of the tracks entered the park after a curve. There were woods surrounding the bridge in every direction but thicker back to the west. Chris had stayed just on the north side of the bridge talking to Dean; I called Chris on my cell as two guys passed by my bench.
“Hey honey, what’s up?” I asked.
“Honey?” he asked. “I might need to rethink my need for witness protection”.
The guys had passed and were now crossing the bridge where Chris was.
“What do you think about them?” I asked.
“I think they are here for the pottery exhibit” he said, as they walked past. He began walking toward me at the bench. It was 3:52. He sat by me and Dean walked up from the other direction.
“Those two are here for the cache, Mark, I am sure of it.” Chris said.
“How can you know that from walking by them?” Dean asked.
“Oh, he knows.” I said.
“They both had smartphones out in their hands but weren’t looking at them” Chris said, “They were looking over the bridge. The held their phone out flat, not just in their hands, and they had them both pointing north, which wasn’t natural unless you are using GPS to find a specific location, like using a compass.”
“Wow. Ok, I didn’t notice that!” Dean answered.
“So what do we do?” Chris asked.
I thought for a second and answered, “I think we have two things we need to try to do. First, is keep to anyone from getting killed trying to FTF that cache and the second is to catch this guy, if you are sure he is here”.
Chris answered, “I am sure”.
“Chris, what do you think about the message with this cache? Anything?”
Chris replied, “I am almost completely sure I know what it means. We need someone up here on the bridge and we need another group down on the tracks but out of sight.”
That was not going to be easy. Although there were trees and brush on either side of the tracks going west toward Macon, there was brush only a couple hundred feet along the tracks going east. As we considered what to do, a long train whistle sounded in the distance toward town. I looked at my watch, 3:55. Twelve minutes before something.
I made my way behind the bench and down through the trees to the tracks. I stepped out between the metal rails directly under the bridge and looked at my GPS. I was in the right spot but there was nothing on the tracks or the cross ties. I looked up to see under the bridge but there wasn’t anything the size of an ammo box attached to the frame or the underside of the boards that were a good 40 feet from where I stood.
I got a text on my phone that said ‘at your 3: 50 yards out’ from Cory. He had gotten our message and had come from around the corn mound and the maintenance shed through a couple hundred yards of brush to the track level but was well into the thick cover. I glanced up briefly in that direction but couldn’t see him. I could clearly hear the train coming but could not see it yet. There was a guy coming down the tracks in my direction from other direction.
He met me under the bridge and I noticed he was also holding a smartphone. He smiled at me and looked on either side of the tracks and kicked up the gravel in a few spots.
I decided to speak. “I don’t see it”.
“Muggles” he said and looked under the bridge.
What the hell is a muggle, I said to myself. More of that Geocaching terminology I guess. By now the train had come around the curve from Macon and the locomotive was in clear view, about a half mile away. It had to slow way down to make that curve and the conductor was not yet putting the coals to it, so to speak. Chris sent me a text that said ‘come up top asap’ and I left this kid down here made my way back up to the bench side of the bridge, the south end, as it was the most direct way up. I knew Cory had an eye on him.
When I got there, I noticed a group of a half dozen guys were now on the bridge. Coming across was a young mother pushing a stroller, watching this group. Suddenly, one of them jumped up on the railing and began trying to climb over the curved portion of the fence. Another grabbed him by the legs and pulled him down and they began fighting and rolling around on the bridge. What I also noticed was that the others, who all seemed to have the same purpose and probably knew each other, did nothing to stop the fight. They all watched the train get closer.
4:02. The locomotive was a hundred yards from the bridge.
Dean was running toward them from the other direction. The young woman was pushing her stroller past the group and the pair that were fighting. Chris grabbed my arm.
“Don’t. Dean is obvious and not a threat to Shref, whichever one he is.”
“You think he is one of them?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. He would be some distance away and wouldn’t be trying to FTF his own cache and all these boys appear to be here just for that.” He jerked his head toward me and through the hair that fell over his face, I saw a light had come on.
“Give me the list of the campers again”.
“The what? Now?”
“Give to me. I think I have been an idiot.”
I gave him the list and he scanned it quickly.
Just then, one of the guys jumped the fence and was able to get over the curved section and swung his legs over to the outside of the fence. Dean had the other two guys he was dealing with and did not see him go over. Whoever Shref Fean was, he was going to have to wait. This kid was about to jump in front a moving train. Chris bolted toward the bridge. I ran down toward the tracks. The kid climbed down the outside of the fence below the floor and hung there, looking under the railings. The train was closing in and was less than fifty yards away. I made my way down the path and could see the kid hanging by one arm and shining a flashlight with his other. The horn from the train blew and the kid looked back.
Then he fell.
I was in a dead run now as the kid hit the tracks. On leg landed flush on the gravel while the other hit the actual track and he folded up between the two. I ran across the gravel and grabbed him by the back of his pants and his arm and drug and pulled him clear of the train. The horn blew and the sound rang in my ears. The kid and I hit the ground as Cory got to us with the other kid I’d left down there.
4:06. The locomotive was three or four cars past the bridge now and I was cut off from the easy path up to the south side of the bridge. The way up on this north side was a steep climb over big pieces of gravel. I didn’t know what Chris was doing with those guys on the bridge, if he had tried to stop them fighting or was trying to keep the others from going over like this guy who fell. Cory was looking over his leg and yelled at me over the rumble of the train, “Get up there!”
I started climbing the rocks. It wasn’t straight up but it was gradual, either. Many of the rocks stayed put but some would give way and I would have to put my hands down and practically crawl up them. I got to the top, huffing, and puffing, and took a few steps up the walkway toward the bridge. I saw Dean with the two fighters on the south side by the bench. Three of the remaining guys were scaling the fence, trying to get over the top. Chris was grabbing them by the legs trying to pull them down but suddenly turned and ran toward the mother with the stroller. He grabbed the stroller by the handles and yanked it from the woman.
“Chris!” I yelled as I ran toward the trio climbing over the fence.
“U.S. Marshal!” I yelled over the roar of the train, “Get your butts down off the fence”.
Either they couldn’t hear or ignored me, either way they kept climbing. I didn’t know what Chris was doing to that poor girl but I had to keep these idiots from killing themselves. I grabbed a pair of legs and snatched him down.
Empty gravel cars were passing under the bridge. I couldn’t keep them all off the fence; as soon as I would pull one down, the others kept climbing all while the deafening roar of the train came from under the bridge. I could hear Chris yelling and I turned. He was fighting over the stroller with the woman! He was twisting and fighting with the front wheels like he was trying to shake the baby out. I turned to stop him when a green box fell from the stroller and skidded to the fence where the boys were climbing.
“First to Find!” Chris yelled. “First to Find”!”
It was enough to get their attention. Once they saw the metal box on the bridge below them, they jumped down off the fence and ran off the bridge away from us. One of them stopped at the box and looked up at me as he grabbed it and picked it up. He cradled it like a football and ran behind the others toward Chris, the girl, and the bench side of the bridge.
By now, Chris was standing over the girl who was sitting on the bridge with her back on the left side fence. He stood in front of her, still holding the stroller out in front of her to hold her where she was. He looked up and saw the kid running with the ammo box toward him. In one motion, he swung away from the runner in a circle and threw the stroller down in front of his feet, tripping him and causing him to drop the box. The runner tumbled and fell then got right up and kept running without the box that had fallen to the bridge floor. He ran past Dean on that side and the two fighters now bolted and ran as well. The train had now passed the bridge and was on its way. Cory was now walking up with an arm of the falling climber over his shoulder, helping him walk up the easier path on the bench side. He sat him down on the bench for Dean to watch then walked over to us.
The girl was sitting with her hands folded across her stomach and her head down. Long brown hair fell over her face and I immediately realized she was not a woman with a baby but rather a younger girl, maybe college age. I was out of breath and so was Chris.
“This”, he said, “is Fran Feesh. She was a registered camper at High Falls where she planted a cache then watched a man die trying to get it. She also planted the cache around the bull’s neck that almost killed Landon”. He paused to catch his breath.
“And she was going to throw that cache,” he pointed at the green ammo box lying on the bridge, “down into one of those empty gravel cars thirty feet below this bridge that could have caused any one of those other guys to get killed trying to jump in after it. And almost killed you, Mark”.
“A girl” I said. “We were thinking guy the whole way”.
“She did this to my boy?” Cory asked. “Why?”
“Ma’am?” I asked.
Seering, hateful, eyes and a frowning face looked up at us. She didn’t say a word.
“Fran Feesh?” Cory asked.
“SHUT UP” she screeched.
“She hates her name”, Chris grinned, “and that makes her angry”.
“SHUT UP” she screeched again, “I want my lawyer NOW!”
We helped her up and Cory handcuffed her and took her away. As they walked back over the bridge and down the path, a few times we heard screeching. I guess Cory was trying to ask her questions.
We helped the guy from the fall to the museum office while we waited for the ambulance. He was just a young guy, 20, and a student at Mercer who enjoyed geocaching. Legally, there wasn’t much for us to do to him or the others other than disobeying my direct orders. That, and breaking the law of not smart behavior. While he rested in the office, Chris, Dean, and I walked into the hallway. Cory walked up, having passed Fran Feesh off to a patrolman to take in.
I couldn’t help it. “What was her name?” I asked Cory.
“Screech owl is her new name” he answered with a smile. He reached out and shook hands with Chris, then me and Dean. “Chris, I appreciate you working on this thing and figuring it out. You might have saved one of those boys from something horrible”.
Dean, who’d seen the whole event open in front of him as he was at the bench with the two fighters, asked Chris, “What made you think it was that girl?”
“None of the guys we had eyes on seemed to be spectating. I realized that at 4:07, the train would be passing under the bridge, plus the part of the cache message that said ’30 under’ led me to believe that the cache was going to be on the train, not on the tracks or on the bridge. That meant the cache was either already on the train or was going to be placed. Since it was the size of an ammo box and not a canister or something smaller that might miss the train car, it had to be thrown into the car. All the guys were on the bridge watching the time and trying to get over at the right moment, except the girl with the stroller. After I looked at the list of campers again, I saw the name Fran Feesh and knew it was her and that the ammo box and not a baby was in her stroller.”
We looked at Chris like we were third graders in a physics class and not one of the fun ones if there are any.
“Fran Feesh. Shane Reff. Anagrams” he said. “She was going to throw it over into one of the gravel cars right at 4:07 and God help those boys trying to jump down off that bridge into one of the cars.”
“Just mean” I said.
“Mean” Chris replied.