911 call was a hoax
June 25, 2008 · Updated 12:24 PM
"Miles of South Whidbey's rural roads were searched by Fire District volunteers. Here, Kenon Simmons leads the way on foot as a truck from the Clinton station follows him down Bob Galbreath Road.Jim Larsen/ staff photoThe timeline Here is an approximate timeline of the hoax that led to a massive search of Whidbey Island for a woman and two children.7:30 p.m. Wednesday: Cheryl Brown, actually in Florida, allegedly calls from the Mukilteo ferry dock, telling her friends in Oak Harbor that she will soon arrive on the island. 3:30 a.m. Thursday. Friends in Oak Harbor, concerned that Brown hasn't shown up, call police.8 a.m. : Brown's friends in Oak Harbor receive a cellular phone call from the woman. Brown says she and her kids are trapped in a car that ran off the road into the woods, somewhere on Whidbey Island. 911 is notified.Morning hours: Sporadic other cellular phone conversations between Brown, a police officer, and an ICOM dispatcher, leading authorities to believe the woman is indeed trapped in a car. Search in progress by police, firefighters, citizen volunteers, emergency medical responders, and helicopters from NAS Whidbey and Seattle TV stations.4 p.m.: Authorities trace cell phone origins to Florida and conclude the calls are probably a hoax.8 p.m.: Police in Florida confront the woman and find her cell phone. They searched Whidbey Island by helicopter, fire truck, police car, and on foot Thursday, looking for Cheryl Brown and her two children, reportedly trapped off some wooded South Whidbey road in a car.But thousands of man hours later, and after perhaps $100,000 in expenses, it all turned out to be a hoax. Cheryl Brown was found at her apartment in Florida with the cellular telephone from which the erroneous reports emanated.Authorities allege it was Brown who made cellular phone calls leading police to believe that she had driven off some dark Whidbey Island road and was injured, sitting inside a red car pointed downward in a heavily wooded area. Hundreds of volunteers, from citizens to firefighters and military personnel, failed to find a trace of the car. The spectre of a woman and kids trapped in a car gave particular urgency to the search.Brown's motives remain inexplicable, even to her friend of four years, Oak Harbor resident Terri Cage. On Thursday, Cage had begged police to search for her friend, and she reacted in disbelief later in the day when authorities began to think it was all a hoax.By Friday morning, Cage had to admit that she too had been duped.Everything we know about that woman is a lie, she said, referring to Cheryl Brown. We just feel like idiots believing this. She and her husband, whom Cage declined to name, have lived in Oak Harbor for two years, and now Cage says they're reluctant to leave their home. However, they're hoping it all blows over soon. This (Oak Harbor) is where we want to make our life, she said. They had TV trucks parked outside their home for hours, but refused to talk to reporters.Cage said she met Brown in an Internet chatroom four years ago, but their relationship had gone beyond cyberspace. Brown visited the island almost two years ago, spending several weeks here. When she said she was returning with her two kids to live here, Cage happily awaited her arrival.The first of what turned out to be several fake phone calls was made at about 7:30 p.m. Thursday night. Cage said Brown told her she was at the Mukilteo ferry dock, and would catch either the 8 or 8:30 p.m. ferry. From there, it was about an hour to Oak Harbor.But Brown, 32, never showed up. By 3:30 a.m., the worried Cage called police and reported her friend and her two children were missing. The children are named Justine, age 11, and Christopher, 9.I'm worried; I'm desperately worried, Cage said on Thursday when the search was still in progress.Cage gave police Brown's cell phone number, and authorities obtained bits of information from the supposedly injured woman for several hours. It was forwarded to South Whidbey Fire District 3 Chief Don Smith, who coordinated the early search from the parking lot of Ken's Korner Shopping Center. The information was passed on to eager searchers, anxious to hear anything that might lead them to the car. Word was spread that Brown drove off the ferry, got confused, remembered going through a little town, and vaguely remembered Casey's shopping center. With every new hint, a contingent of volunteers was dispatched to check it out. When they returned, they reported finding nothing. Would you bet your baby's life on it? Smith asked one firefighter. People scrambled down steep roadsides into blackberry bushes and thick stands of alders to look for the car. Navy and news helicopters scoured the island. But nobody found anything.Chief Smith was starting to think there was something fishy earlier than most, after the men and women who volunteer in FD 3 had scoured the roads once, twice, sometimes thrice over. I'm starting to smell wild geese, he said at 9:50 a.m. But he had no choice except to continue the search. Meanwhile, the Island County Sheriff's Office was frantically trying to locate the cellular phone from which Brown's calls were emanating. Detective Bob Clark and others had to check out the seven cell phone companies that serve the island. The phone was eventually determined to be an AT&T model, but AT&T, citing privacy laws, refused to provide information without a court order. Finally, the company relented, but first the Sheriff's Office had to fill out a form, and promise to provide the court order later.Information from AT&T pointed to Florida, where assistance was obtained from the Palm Beach police. They found Cheryl Brown safely in her apartment, and after some reluctance she produced the cellular phone. It rang, and the police officer picked it up.It's for you, the officer said, handing the phone to Brown. On the other end was Detective Bob Clark.Clark said he talked to Brown for a short time, and he doesn't think she set out to pull a giant hoax on the community of Whidbey Island. She pretty much confessed, he said. Brown had started by calling Cage in Oak Harbor, lying about being in Mukilteo. And from there it snowballed. It had just gotten away from her, Clark said. You can't tell one lie without telling a million. He said Brown duped her friend Cage, who then unknowingly gave wrong information to police. We were double duped, he said.Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley was as frustrated by everyone else involved in the search. It cost us $100,000 of taxpayer dollars to track this thing down, he said. The cost of operating the Navy search helicopter is estimated at $10,000 an hour.The fine for making an intentionally erroneous 911 call is $250. Hawley said he is looking for something more substantial to charge Brown with.We're researching it with the FBI, he said. It virtually seized up our office and put the rest of the community at risk. "