A FELLOW by the name of George Steinmetz sneaked into Garden City, Kan., recently and aerial photobombed Brookover Feed Yard.
This nefarious scoundrel had previously been guilty of such self-admitted evildoing as photographing "remote deserts, obscure cultures, the mysteries of science and technology."
He describes himself as a regular contributor to National Geographic and Germany's GEO magazines, exploring subjects ranging from the remotest stretches of Arabia's Empty Quarter to the unknown tree people of Irian Jaya.
In the past-quarter century, he has contributed 31 major photo essays to National Geographic and 25 stories to GEO. He has photographed the Sahara and Gobi deserts and was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to document the work of scientists in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and volcanoes of Antarctica.
However, it was the sneak attack on the high deserts of the American West that finally landed him in jail.
Strafing Brookover with his Nikon was forbidden — verboten — a clear case of criminal trespass. At least that was the way Earl and Ty Brookover saw it, and the sheriff agreed.
Steinmetz's mistake, of course, was misunderstanding the culture of Finney County, Kan., and wanting to shoot the feedyard cattle himself from a paraglider at 500 ft. If he had gone to the Garden City Regional Airport, rented a Piper Cub and did the deed at 2,000 ft. or searched Google maps for satellite images taken at 200 miles, he could have slipped out of town scot-free before sunset. He would have gotten away with it, and the Brookovers would be none the wiser until they saw the photographs in a future issue of National Geographic.
Instead, he eventually spiraled to earth and found the Finney County Sheriff's Department waiting to arrest him and his one-man ground crew, Wei Zhang. The alleged criminals were charged, booked into the county jail and released a few hours later after paying a bond of $270 each.
The pair fled the long arm of Kansas law, reportedly surfacing later in the more forgiving arms of Texas. They were formally charged July 11 by Finney County attorney Susan Richmeier, who made it clear that issues of illegally using the airspace over the feedyard and the state's "ag gag" law were not in play in this case.
The two were charged with trespassing, a simple class B misdemeanor like spitting on the sidewalk. Evidently, their real crime was parking their rented vehicle on "posted" ground. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, those legendary 19th-century sheriffs from nearby Dodge City, Kan., would be amused.
It is fortunate that those early reports that Kansas was using its ag gag law to prevent a world-famous photographer from taking pictures without permission from the land owner were false.
The law, which still awaits a meaningful court review, deserves a better stage than this hopefully obscure event. It's better to find a serious infringement that invites meaningful dialogue than this case, which is great fodder for the "Daily Show" and late-night TV show comedians. To add to the insanity, there was even talk of breaches in "food security."
If the case goes to court, Zhang and Steinmetz — the Flying Wallendas of the photojournalist set — will likely be found guilty and pay a small fine, which will be covered by their employer, National Geographic, with funds found at the bottom of its petty cash drawer.
Better yet, the Brookovers could drop the charge and invite Steinmetz to a friendly, "getting to know you" dinner at Garden City night spot Samy's Spirits & Steakhouse, followed by an early-morning tour of their feedyard.
A photographic spread in National Geographic would do their business good and give Kansas agriculture a pat on the back to replace that shiner the state now sports from this over-the-top incident. Some would call it "good agvocacy."
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.