There was a time when a suspect who wanted to evade arrest could cause local police considerable difficulties by scampering off into the expansive marshes of Glynn County.
But thanks to emerging 21st Century technology, those marshes just got a lot smaller for folks seeking to avoid arrest. A 27-year-old Thomasville man allegedly learned this firsthand Wednesday morning, his hideaway in the tall marsh grasses near Georgia Pacific Pulp & Paper quickly exposed by a trio of county government techies operating drones.
It all started when William Jordan Burks allegedly sped away into the marsh off of West Ninth Street following a traffic stop by Glynn County Police. Burks allegedly crashed his motorcycle into the marsh, then ran farther in, disappearing into a vast stretch of marshland bordered by the Turtle River and the paper mill, according to reports.
Backup police units arrived, as did police tracking dogs; Glynn County Police settled in for an old-fashioned manhunt. Then, Glynn County Police Chief Matt Doering suggested the officers request assistance from the drone team at the county’s Geographical Information Systems Department.
Drone pilots John Centeno and Andrew Strickland were all too happy to oblige. Drone pilot Alec Eaton of the county Emergency Management Agency also joined in the hunt.
“They decided to call us out there because there’s just a huge area of marsh in between the mill and the border of Turtle River,” said Strickland, a GIS analyst with the department.
The drones are relatively new technology for the county, used by the GIS department for everything from defining county commission district borders to mapping property parcels to conducting traffic counts. Strickland, Centeno and Eaton all earned drone pilot certifications from the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year.
“These drones are super accurate,” Strickland said. “We could focus this in on a dime.”
Just ask Burks, who remained Thursday in the Glynn County Detention Center on a slew of charges, including fleeing and attempting to elude police, obstruction of justice, and driving recklessly with a suspended license on an unregistered motorcycle. An officer initially stopped Burks at 10:32 a.m. because he allegedly was driving a Suzuki dirt bike with a cardboard tag on U.S. Highway 341 near Seventh Street. He allegedly lied about his name, then drove away when the officer requested he step off the bike after discovering its registration was suspended.
The pursuit led from there to West Ninth Street, where Burks allegedly dashed into the marsh and laid low.
The drone pilots arrived, and quickly gave the police eyes in the sky above the boundless marsh. The small, four-propeller drones are operated by a steering toggle on a control panel. The panel includes an iPad screen that relays everything caught on the drone’s camera for the pilot. Strickland served as observer, watching the drones’ journey in the physical world so the pilots could concentrate on the view relayed onscreen.
Eaton’s drone quickly spotted the suspect, laying flat in the marsh about 100 yards out. Both drones were soon hovering over him, between 30 and 60 feet above. A police officer was able to walk straight out to him. Video from the drone shows the officer ordering Burks at gunpoint to put his hands behind his back. He complies and is handcuffed.
“It was a huge area for them to search,” Strickland said. “And we were able to find him in... what, two minutes?”
His partner Centeno nodded in agreement.
“We had two drones in the air,” Centeno said. “Alex spotted him first, spotted him right away. So we just put two drones on top of him so we could keep him in view the whole time.”
The retiring Chief Doering, always a proponent of advancing law enforcement technology, praised the assistance of the county’s drone pilots. The drones not only cut down considerably on the search time for the suspect, but also provided a strategic and safety advantage for the police officers, he said.
“The drone was invaluable in quickly locating the suspect hiding and directing officers to him safely,” Doering said. “An officer was watching the suspect (on the screen) the whole time as the officer (in the marsh) approached him, to ensure he posed no visible threat to officers who could not see him on the ground.”
The drones cost the county about $1,500 each, Centeno said. Centeno and Strickland became FAA certified drone pilots in March. They have been constantly finding new new uses for the this new technology ever since.
That goes for the EMA’s drone as well, agency Director Jay Wiggins said. The agency is considering plans to acquire a larger drone that might carry emergency flotation devices to those in danger on the water. And they are also seeking grant money to buy a special infrared drone camera that can pinpoint folks through body heat at night or in thick cover, he said.
The EMA seeks the technology to improve rescue operations, but it could also come in handy if someone makes a nighttime run for in the marsh, he noted.
“It’s cutting edge technology,” Wiggins said. “We’re just getting into it. This is the tip of the iceberg. And I hope Wednesday sent a message to people — you can run, but you cannot hide.”