By Patrick Wadepwade@news-gazette.com
CHAMPAIGN - They say it comes out at night and follows you. Maybe is sounds like something out of a science-fiction horror movie, but a group of Champaign residents say they are legitimately frightened by a light in the sky.
And they want the police to do something about it.
"Really, when you first see it, it's kind of intimidating," Linda Turnbull said. "It's really a scare tactic."
A small group of people who have seen if flying a few dozen feet over the Garden Hills neighborhood and West Washington Street area near downtown Champaign cannot identify the flying object, but they know it scares the heck out of them. They say it's small and circular, it doesn't make a noise and emits a white light.
Try to get away, and it follows you with ease, they say.
"I have no idea (what it is), but it scared the hell out of my little niece," said resident Crystal Hayes. "She literally started crying."
Turnbull lives in Garden Hills, and she often visits her mother at the Washington Square apartment building near downtown Champaign. She said she and others have seen it at both locations.
She met with Police Chief Anthony Cobb to talk about it earlier this week. Cobb said, on its face, it's not necessarily a crime. But given that a community member is concerned about it, he feels an obligation to at least look into it.
"Is it crime No. 1 in the city of Champaign? Not at this point in time," he said.
It's not a common complaint, he said. No one has ever reported to Cobb a claim of harassment via model aircraft before, and he said police need to figure out what is going on before they move forward.
"At this point in time, I don't know where we're going to end up," Cobb said.
Without seeing it, it's hard to tell what it could be and where the pilot might be located, said Gerald Sappenfield, president of the Champaign County Radio Control Club. But based on its description, he said it is possible that it could be a radio-controlled device.
If it is, the pilot certainly is not following general flying etiquette, he said.
"We do make that pretty clear how important it is for all of our club members, both for safety and for insurance reasons, to tell them to fly at our designated area" on West Bloomington Road near the interstate, he said.
The city of Champaign has received complaints about model airplanes flying over residential properties before, according to city documents. In 2000, residents of the Meridian Estates subdivision, across Interstate 74 from the club's flying field, complained after a model airplane crashed in the area. The city got another complaint in 2006, and the club was quick to correct the issues, according to documents.
The city has not received any complaints since 2006, and it is unlikely the club's flying field would be the source of Turnbull's complaint. Sappenfield said the flying field is much too far away from the Garden Hills neighborhood.
Turnbull said the object is so frightening that it has been the source of a few 911 calls.
"A lot of people were not used to it, and they didn't know what to think," Turnbull said. "They were just scared."
When officers show up, she said, they have not exactly been receptive to the idea of investigating a UFO.
"They try to make a joke of it, and that's not right." Turnbull said.
But the frustration is no laughing matter, she said. When she sees it, she feels disrespected and emotionally stressed. She rented a telescope to try to catch a close-up look, and she's distributing fliers asking people to be on the lookout and report anything they see to firstname.lastname@example.org
It could be any number of things, Turnbull said - a spy plane, meddling kids or maybe something more sinister. But resident Pam Barrett said it is the "fear of the unknown" that is really affecting those who have seen it.
"One time, I got where I didn't want to look at it," Barrett said.
If it's some kind of remote-controlled plane, there are not a whole lot of rules in the city of Champaign - or anywhere, for that matter - governing when and where it can be flown, said City Attorney Fred Stavins.
If it's recreation, there is not a whole lot the authorities can do. But if the pilot is intentionally harassing his neighbors, Stavins said, then maybe police could intervene.
"I want the police to do something," Turnbull said. "I want this thing to stop stalking people."