By Jeremy Jost
For the Sun Tribune
Law enforcement officers from four different agencies surrounded the building, with their lights glaring, they used their squad cars to block the exits. The cold of a November night was accompanied by dramatic suspense, with both hanging in the air as Morris Police Sgt. Ross Tiegs approached the building. Responding to a tripped alarm, and hearing voices coming from inside the building, he noticed that a piece of plywood covering a window was being dislodged from inside by a black crowbar. Tiegs drew his firearm, illuminated its tactical light, and aimed it at the intruders. He saw three figures dressed in dark clothing and stocking caps, one wearing a headlamp, all struggling to climb out of the building through shards of broken glass.
Moments later all three were handcuffed and in the back of a squad car, waiting to be taken downtown.
Though this scene could perhaps be found in a Hollywood thriller, the intruders on this night were not arsonists or high profile criminals. They were three college students, and in their possession were not gold bars or antique paintings, but instead, a plastic carrot and a laminated stop sign, these just two souvenirs taken from a night of "urban exploring" in the decidedly un-urban town of Morris.
Urban exploring, a growing hobby taken up by young people around the globe, declares itself to be the examination of the normally unseen or off-limit parts of human society. Abandoned schools, churches, hospitals, and factories are viewed with intrigue and interest by these explorers, many of whom see true beauty in the dilapidated and decaying forms of long deserted architecture. In fact, many urban explorers are also proficient photographers who chronicle their adventures online, posting testimonials and photo galleries that look convincingly artistic.
A subgroup of urban explorers engages in "draining" or "urban spelunking" as they explore the miles of drainage systems under large cites. The practice of urban exploration has become more mainstream in the last decade, and has even been featured in a program titled "Urban Explorers" on the Discovery Channel.
As interesting as it seems, urban exploring is not without its drawbacks. There are serious safety issues involved with the practice, including the risk of various types of structural failure. Buildings are abandoned for a reason. In some there are roofs held up by rotting beams and floors that give way beneath one's feet. These explorers also risk exposing themselves to broken glass scattered on the floor, harsh chemicals festering in closed up rooms, harmful substances including asbestos and the contaminants from pigeon droppings. The danger of these sites is not lost on some explorers, many of whom wear respirators and hardhats on their adventures.
Since the old elementary school closed in 2006, it has fallen into disrepair; inside the building there are ceilings and pieces of plaster falling down, as well as concerns about mold and asbestos that hastened the closing of the building.
"Safety is our priority," said Morris Chief of Police Jim Beauregard. "In any abandoned building, over time, there are safety issues and hazards. Our concern is that someone could get in the building and get hurt."
Break-ins to abandoned buildings also draw officers away from their other duties. Beauregard said there have been numerous criminal acts on the elementary school property including a sexual assault and instances of trespassing and vandalism, and that now he must send officers on regular patrols of the grounds and weekly walk-through of the school to assess damage -- this can be very costly and time-consuming.
"I have to call people out on overtime every time the alarm goes off at 3 a.m. I have to send officers into an unsafe situation," said Beauregard, noting that for safety reasons he cannot just send one officer, but instead must send them in teams.
Tiegs estimated that 25 to 30 people have been caught inside the school building since it was closed 2-1/2 years ago. On at least four occasions, the Pope County canine search team has been called to help officers track down trespassers and vandals.
"You can't just leave somebody in there because if they get hurt, the city gets sued," Tiegs said. "It takes considerable resources and it's time-consuming. You can't just walk through the school, you have to search every nook and cranny. And there are a lot of nooks and crannies in this place."
As the three young people soon found out, what seemed like exploring to them appeared to Tiegs and the others assisting him to be a much more serious--and a much more criminal--situation. Under Minnesota Law a person who enters an abandoned building without consent can be charged with a variety ofoffenses ranging from misdemeanor trespassing to felony burglary charges. The charges and penalties can be aggravated if one is in possession of tools used to facilitate entry into the building. An "urban explorer" who uses a tool to enter a building and steals from the building, even if it is a souvenir or item of little value, can be charged with burglary, and can face a penalty of up to 10 years in prison or a $20,000 fine, or both.
With such harsh penalties possible for "urban exploring," what will be the fate of the three explorers here in Morris? While they certainly could have been made an example of, the answer is that the explorers lucked out--this time.
By agreeing to plead guilty to misdemeanor trespassing charges and agreeing to be interviewed for this article -- their names have been changed -- the three have escaped relatively unscathed, returning to school instead of being sent to a prison cell.
But they didn't need hard time in prison to learn a valuable lesson, for these college students one night in handcuffs was enough.
"Aaron," a computer science major who sounds far more like a Star Trek geek than a burglar, said, "I didn't really think it through. If I had thought about it, I probably wouldn't have done it. But this did teach me how to take responsibility for my own actions, even the things, you know, you're not really proud of."
"Brandon," now 19, wore a miner style headlamp during the act and found out "the Morris Police take these things very seriously." After hearing about previous incidents at the elementary school property, he said that he certainly understands the need for such a serious approach.
"Megan," the third "explorer" who had purchased the crowbar and who was barely past her 18th birthday at the time of the incident heard from friends about all the positive aspects of urban exploring, but none of the negative aspects. She now "understands how urban exploring could be very dangerous." She said being handcuffed in the back of a squad car was "a little scary" until she sensed the police realized the three were not a threat.
On a cold November night in Morris, three "urban explorers" learned a lesson as their criminal adventure was foiled. They were not however, the first or last people to attempt such a feat at the old elementary school building. City officials have ongoing concerns about criminal activity and public safety issues regarding the property.
As Morris City Attorney Charlie Glasrud put it, "With the start of a new school year, new people have joined us in Morris. I hope the lesson learned by these three young people will be of use to them so we don't have a tragedy."
Jeremy Jost is a UMM student who interned with Glasrud's law office during the summer.