Homeless Man Suspected of Vandalism at Arizona TV Towers Not Charged

Prosecutors can't decide whether to charge a man accused of disrupting TV and radio signals for about an hour last month by vandalizing equipment on top of South Mountain in Phoenix.

Micheal Preston, 41, a homeless man, was accused by police of trespassing, burglary, and criminal damage — each a felony — for his February 15 actions at the landmark antenna farm on the mountain.

He was released from jail on his own recognizance early the next day by Maricopa County Court Commissioner Sigmund Popko.

"Prosecutors have not made a final charging decision in this case," said Amanda Jacinto, Maricopa County Attorney's Office spokeswoman. "We are waiting on more information from investigators."

Asked if it might be difficult to find someone like Preston, Jacinto declined to answer.

Preston originally had court hearings scheduled for March 2 and 8, but the hearings were scrapped after the prosecution office didn't charge him.

A police spokesman suggested that Preston might not have been mentally aware of what he was doing.

Preston was found by police inside the fenced area that surrounds the transmission towers and related equipment. "No Trespassing" signs hang from the fence, but they weren't enough to deter Preston.

"From what we can tell, he climbed underneath the fence and just started pulling handles," Sergeant Vince Lewis said. "Those that he couldn't pull, he broke."

The levers controlled power generators that shut off some signals directly and also shut off cooling fans, which then led to more equipment and transmission failures, he said.

Police don't know if Preston understood that the alleged vandalism could lead to loss of radio or TV signals.

But Preston did mention that he had worked in "communications" sometime in the past, Lewis said. Investigators couldn't confirm the claim.

The full investigative report hasn't yet been released. Initial reports don't detail how Preston arrived at the transmission towers.

Preston could have been suffering from the effect of prescription drugs, possible mental illness, or "a touch of dehydration," according to Lewis.

"He said he was walking through the desert and happened upon the site," Lewis said.

Someone had reported Preston missing before the vandalism, but Lewis didn't have details.

The high-profile antennas jut upward from the summit area of the 2,690-foot Mount Suppoa, the highest of three ranges that make up what is popularly called South Mountain.

The 16,000-acre South Mountain Park run by the city of Phoenix has a six-mile road that leads from the main entrance at 10919 Central Avenue. Many of the park's rugged hiking trails also converge on the summit area, which has a couple of lookouts but no water fountains or restroom facilities.

The extent of the signal disruption isn't clear, but the damage affected at least some of the signals for most Phoenix-area TV and radio stations.

PBS Channel 8 (KAET-TV), reported that its over-the-air signal was knocked out for about 45 minutes, but that cable viewers were unaffected. Other stations reportedly affected by Preston's actions didn't answer requests for information. Some Univision service to Tucson was also interrupted, police said.

The county attorney's office could still hit Preston with charges up to two years or more, but they'll have to track him down and serve him.

For now, Preston appears to have escaped any legal trouble over the incident.

Yet the case also raises the question of security at the transmission towers: Will it be beefed up now?

Possibly.

"Staff is in the process of doing an assessment of the security fencing and gate system," said Gregg Bach, spokesman for the city of Phoenix parks and recreation department. "Once completed, that assessment will determine if enhancements are needed and what cost would be associated with it."

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