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Chris Jones

Prankster's Rooftop Stunt Highlights Security Challenge

21 March 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Despite a slew of post-Sept. 11 security restrictions, a prankster has again raised questions about building operators' ability to prevent the public from easily accessing the roofs of Las Vegas' many high-rise buildings.

A video file creating a buzz on the Internet shows a man climbing onto the MGM Grand's rooftop logo and defecating toward the ground nearly 280 feet below. Though the incident's date could not be confirmed, the video's soundtrack suggests it took place just seven months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and subsequent terror concerns prompted increased security measures at most Strip properties.

The MGM Grand stunt has also highlighted a continuing challenge facing local security teams.

Clark County fire regulations require public access to building rooftops if those areas are designated emergency escape routes, Clark County Fire Department spokesman Robert Leinbach said. But that conflicts with security recommendations by the federal government, which views rooftops as a prime venue for troublemakers.

Tim Donovan, president of the Las Vegas Security Chiefs Association, whose membership includes heads of security from most major hotels as well as 7,000 uniformed officers in the tourist corridor, said rooftops are routinely surveilled and physically patrolled, just like other public areas of a hotel-casino.

Rooftops are often dotted with wire conduit, ventilation pipes and other potential stumbling blocks that could cause injury, Donovan explained.

Still, building owners typically can't lock the doors leading to roofs via fire escape stairwells.

"Really, there's no purpose for (the public) to be up there at all," Donovan said of hotel-casino rooftops. "You can't secure it because of the fire code, (but) it would be prudent as a hotel operator to put in an alarm system so that you know when people are up there."

Alarms are just one of the roof-related cautions urged by leaders in Washington. In December 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued the Reference Manual to Mitigate Potential Terrorist Attacks Against Buildings. While many of its recommendations are impractical in high-traffic venues, the manual repeatedly stressed that public rooftop access should be prevented to "minimize the possibility of aggressors placing explosives or chemical, biological, or radiological agents there or otherwise threatening building occupants or critical infrastructure."

MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said Wednesday he learned of the incident last week when he received a link to a Web site displaying the footage. He immediately called company security and asked them to look into how the man could have reached the MGM Grand's rooftop -- and subsequently escape -- without being detected.

"Obviously this is someone who should not have gotten up there," Feldman said. "The first thing all of us thought of when we saw it was, 'How did that happen?'"

Since Sept. 11, Feldman said MGM Grand has kept its rooftop doors locked from the inside. The doors are also alarmed, under video surveillance and are physically checked by security workers several times each day, including the suspected day the incident occurred. And while workers are often atop the roof repairing cellular towers and other equipment, an unescorted guest should never have reached the roof unnoticed, he said.

"He somehow slipped in between," said Feldman, who said the climber accessed the roof using a fire exit. "Clearly this was someone who had a very specific goal in mind, and who knows what they may have done to affect it."

Though he downplayed the significance of the MGM Grand incident, an interested state leader said the best preventative measures won't stop someone who's determined to carry out a particular action.

"That's why terrorism works. If you're willing to die, then you can create a lot of damage. But if you want to go pee off a roof or take a dump off a roof, that's a little different," said Dr. Dale Carrison, chairman of Nevada Homeland Security.

The video file in question was posted on several Web sites earlier this month. One lists its source as Ryan Thompson, though additional details on the subject and the video's origin were unavailable.

The footage appears to have been videotaped from a guest room at the MGM Grand. Looking out from a window on the east side of the hotel tower, a male camera operator zooms up toward the massive gold letters that spell out the hotel-casino's name near the roofline of one of its four 30-story towers.

"All right, Thompson, let's see what we've got here," the cameraman says as he zooms toward the sign's second 'M' and the prankster climbs off the roof onto the "M."

Background sound from a televised basketball game suggests the event took place April 28, 2002.

Despite that apparent rooftop breach nearly three years ago, Carrison expressed confidence in local hotel security teams' ability to safeguard their properties, guests and fellow employees.

"If this is a problem, they must be working on it," Carrison said.

Another key concern, however, is how the public perceives security in the city. Megaresorts may have world-class protective measures, but they too would suffer should travelers stay away following an attack at a smaller, off-Strip resort that's more vulnerable to would-be terrorists.

"The danger is the lowest common denominator," Carrison said. "If we have something occur in this city ... it isn't going to matter to people because from our economic standpoint, a casino is a casino is a casino" when viewed by outsiders.

Regarding the prank at MGM Grand, Carrison said he's less concerned about rooftop hijinks than an event at or near ground level. Explosives there, for example, would cause much greater damage.

"Am I trying to minimize it? No. But from a realistic standpoint, I'm more concerned about the guy that's sneaking around in the basement than I am with a guy on the roof," Carrison said.

MGM Mirage does not intend to pursue charges against the climber.

"What's done is done," Feldman said. "What's of concern in this is knowing that somebody had the ability to gain access, and we want to be certain that doesn't happen again."