Caught in Kansas

Before this trip, chatting with security doormen in our apartment lobbies had probably been the extent of our brushes with law enforcement. Outside of sneaking free food from school conferences, rarely had either of us done much that could excite police attention. Needless to say, when we stepped off the plane in Manhattan, Kan., (the smaller apple), neither one of us could have predicted that 24 hours later we would be backed into a driveway and detained under the watchful eye of a young police officer.

Perhaps we had grown too confident, imagining that everyone at Kansas State University welcomed our presence as eagerly as our helpful guides earlier that day. For more than two hours we had toured the interior of the KSU nuclear research reactor. Standing over the blue reactor pool, two exceptionally smiley and talkative student operators answered question after question in response to our curiosity. Being perceived as suspicious did not cross our minds, nor apparently did it cross the minds of those working inside the research reactor.

After a break to cool off with some ice cream, we went back to campus to film footage of the buildings against the evening sky. We spotted Hale Library, a picturesque, white building resembling a castle and parked the car.

Looking for a better shot of students entering the library, I crossed the street for a wider view. As I panned the camera across the side of the building, a squad car appeared in the viewfinder. The cruiser made a slow U-turn and pulled up across from where I stood. Of all things to be stopped for by a policeman, taking pictures of a library is probably not what most people would guess, but apparently surprising things can happen in Kansas.

What started as one young officer's request to view our IDs quickly transformed into a nervous and unfamiliar situation. The officer parked his squad car behind our Pontiac in a one-lane driveway, and when two additional squad cars arrived as backup, we were essentially trapped in. Over the next 30 minutes, we sat anxiously in our dark silver Grand Am, waiting for a clear explanation of why we were being detained.

Eventually the young officer revealed that we fit the description of "two young women visiting reactors on campus universities." He asked if we had been to the reactor, roughly a quarter-mile away. We explained how we had a scheduled tour with Michael Whaley, the reactor director, earlier that day. Apparently, the campus police were not aware of our scheduled visit and seemed perplexed about the situation. Still eyeing us warily, the officers finally let us go, saying there had been a mishap in communication.

We later learned that a person at Ohio State University, a campus we had visited earlier, had become suspicious when we took exterior photographs of the reactor building. ABC Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross told us that an FBI file had been opened on those visitors -- and later closed.

Although the situation had been nerve-racking, it was comforting to know that someone in the system was paying attention and detected the two reported female "spies."

Unfortunately, this story has a mixed ending -- it remains unclear whether this little adventure can be judged as a tale of success for public safety. While we had been noticed and noted, this news arrived a little late. We had already entered two nuclear research facilities in Wisconsin and Kansas, and afterward, would visit two more in Missouri.

Perhaps even more surprising, in a follow-up phone interview conducted several weeks after our visit, the KSU reactor director seemed unaware that we had ever been stopped by campus police. Apparently, the warning about two so-called shady female travelers never reached some ears at all.