Sunday, December 03, 2006
How Not To Tour Cherokee, North Carolina
(Read Foggy Memories to set the scene for this post)
I hesitate to tell this story, because the ending will seem contrived and ... well, fake. It's not, everything in this post is just as it happened ...
The winter I volunteered in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a winter of great discoveries, some of which I posted yesterday. As LE trained volunteers, we rode along with the NPS Rangers on road patrol both day and night. We were there to assist, but as volunteers and not employees, there were restrictions on what we were allowed to do.
Still, most NPS Rangers patrol alone and in law enforcement, it's always better to have a partner. So, the Rangers were glad to have us and we were glad to be getting the experience that would aid us in becoming Rangers.
Highway 441 snakes through GSMNP from Cherokee, NC to Gatlinburg, TN. It's a busy mountain road that is a much shorter route than driving around the mountains for those travelling to either city. 441 has enough elevation and steep grades that it is closed when snow and ice make the way treacherous. There were gates at the foot of the mountains, on both the NC and TN sides. These were closed when the weather got bad, but first, two Rangers would start down from Newfound Gap and sweep all visitors out of the park, one going down the NC side and one sweeping the TN side.
On one particular evening, I was stationed down at the road gate with the Chief Ranger. We had the entry lane closed and were just waiting for the sweeper Ranger to herd the rest of the visitors out of the park. There was a light snow falling and I was standing by the half closed gate explaining to incoming cars that they would have to turn around. The Chief was sitting in his car nearby when the radio crackled to life.
" Hey, stop this car when he comes around the bend, it'll be a white Transam going fast." It seems the sweeper Ranger had tried to pull the car over for a warning when the Transam took off at high speed.
The Chief called to me to shut the gate, and as I walked to grab it a white Transam came blasting around the bend and zipped past me with a blue light NPS patrol car right on his tale.
"GET IN!" yelled the Chief and off we went, blue lights and siren.
Now, this is where the Chief was supposed to put me out, as I was a volunteer, not employed, but he was NOT a strictly by the book guy and so off we went.
We called ahead to the reservation police as we left the park and entered the Cherokee Indian Reservation and one by one the Cherokee police cruisers joined the chase. There were now two NPS patrol cars and two Cherokee police cars between us and the white Transam.
We hit 95 miles an hour going into the town of Cherokee, slowed, and then headed out a very twisty mountain road ... I think it was the road to Maggie Valley, but this was 1981 and I may have that wrong. I do know it was a series of S-curves and the Transam was pulling away ... fast. We lost visual contact with it, but the chain of patrol cars continued on.
Then, as we passed a drive and a house that set back from the road, I thought I saw the Transam parked as we flew by. Was I right? My brain instantly did this internal debate, "What if you're wrong and we investigate while the perp gets away vs. What if you're right and the perp is there and not somewhere ahead of us?"
The Chief saw me flinch and turn to look.
"What, what! Did you see him?"
"I think so."
He slammed on the breaks and did a U-turn. We headed back to the house while the rest of the patrol cars continued on.
Sure enough, in the driveway sat a very warm white Transam with the right license tag. It was empty.
Inside the house, a group of people were sitting watching TV. No one came to the door even though a patrol car with blue lights flashing was sitting in the gravel driveway.
We radioed the other patrol cars and they turned around.
Soon the whole yard was full of flashing patrol cars.
Still, no one came out of the house.
The Chief and the other officers went up to the door, knocked, and a Cherokee man came to the door. He explained to the officers that yes, the driver of the Transam was on his couch watching TV. He did not know him, but he had knocked on the door and asked to come in because the cops were chasing him. The homeowner had let him in.
The Rangers and Cherokee police called the driver out, cuffed him, read him his rights, and arrested him. He was our prisoner, so the Chief and I transported him to the only federally approved jail in the area, over in Bryson City.
Along the way he screamed at us, cussed at us, threatened us, and tried his best to spit at us through the half inch gap between the security panel that divided the front from the backseat of the patrol car.
By the time he entered the jail, he was crying.
It was a quiet ride back to the Ranger Station after all the excitement.
"Good job spotting that car tonight" he said as we entered the park.
"I'm just glad I was right, I was afraid I hadn't actually seen it."
I can't believe that Cherokee family just let that guy in to watch TV though."
"You think that's odd, you know what they were watching?" He turned and looked me in the eye.
" No, what was it?" ( I didn't go into the house, they did follow the book on that)
"Smokey And The Bandit"