Before Tuesday was over, the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department's Facebook post had reached 60,000 page views. Thousands of people shared it. It was about creepy clown sightings — and how to handle them.
"To be brutally honest," said Fort Oglethorpe Police Capt. Gary McConathy, "I cannot think of anything else in my entire 26 years that rivals this right here. I don't remember any fads we were ever worried about. But you have to remember: The times have changed with social media and Snapchats and Facebook pages."
As reports have multiplied across the region — and country — in recent months of people dressing up as scary clowns, Tennessee and Georgia law enforcement rebounded this week with near choreographed warnings: Don't dress up like a clown and threaten people; that's against the law. But just as importantly, don't lie about clowns that aren't there.
You could be prosecuted for filing "a false report," a charge that's only as serious as the jurisdiction you're charged in.
In Tennessee, making false reports is a class C or D felony, based on the circumstances, that carries prison time if convicted. In Georgia, it's a misdemeanor that, in the worst-case scenario, usually ends in a $1,000 fine, McConathy said.
"Periodically, we'll see that [charge]," said Jason Ponder, an assistant district attorney for Tennessee's 14th Judicial District, which serves Coffee County.
On Monday, a teenager there said someone in a red hoodie and a clown mask cut him with a knife during a scuffle. But after searching the area, Coffee County deputies never found any clown and continue to investigate.
"A lot of times," Ponder said, "[false reporting] is coupled with a false report of a theft. Or a stolen checkbook to cover up a bad check. As far as a false report of a clown? No, I've never seen that before."
It was puzzling to the Chattanooga Police Department, where Rob Simmons, an officer of nearly 14 years, said some crimes get trendy and go viral. "But I haven't seen anything this widespread going across the nation. To me, that is a new one."
And it was "very, very weird" to Sam Mairs, administrator of Hamilton County Juvenile Court, who said the two middle-school students charged last week with circulating a threat on social media about shooting up schools in Red Bank would probably wind up in the rehabilitation-driven program administrated by he and Judge Rob Philyaw.
"Back in the day," Mairs said, "it was the phoning in the bomb threats to schools. That's about the only one I ever recall with some frequency. It seems to trend for a while and then die out. But if you're asking if it's common, the simple answer is it's not."
Only one of the teenagers was charged with making a false report in that incident, said Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokesman Matt Lea.
"His actions required a law enforcement response and caused legitimate community concerns which interrupted the normal course of a public education institute," Lea wrote in an email.
Lea referenced the Tennessee annotated code for false reports, where one of the sections describes "intentionally" circulating a bombing, fire or other emergency that exposes people in public areas to "imminent serious bodily injury."
Both teenagers were also charged with disorderly conduct and conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct, which are misdemeanors, and police took their electronic devices as evidence. Red Bank Police Chief Tim Christol was unavailable Thursday for further comment on the arrest.
The consequences of a false reporting charge depend on the state. So does the frequency with which law enforcement uses it.
In Fort Oglethorpe, McConathy said, officers have charged people with false reports of crime 47 times since 1997. In Hamilton County, Lea said, 450 people have been charged with the crime in the last five years.
McConathy and Simmons said they strive to avoid using the charge draconianly on people.
"We don't want people to not report to police because they're scared of being wrong," Simmons said. "We would only charge people if it's an absolute lie."
McCracken Poston, a practicing defense attorney in Tennessee and Georgia who is also the part-time Juvenile Court Judge in Catoosa County, said he's glad false reports is just a misdemeanor in Georgia because the statute is one sentence long and imprecise. In Tennessee, the statute has multiple sections and subsections.
"If someone says, 'Oh, the subject was 6 feet tall and blonde' and they were just having a senior moment but it was interpreted as being obstructive, they could get loaded up with offenses," Poston said. "It's always been a bit of a non-precise statute [in Georgia]. Now, I don't know a lot of abuse of it. But leave it to a bunch of kids to come up with a way that people want to abuse it."
So far, the clown craze is too fresh to track through local courts. For instance, what would happen tomorrow if a false report of a clown case was dropped on Ponder's desk?
"It would depend on the background, the nature of any weapon involved, the strength of the case," the Coffee County prosecutor said. " I can tell you if it's an adult, a D felony carries 2 to 12 years and a C carries 3 to 15 — it just depends on their prior history.
"So, yeah, pretty significant consequences if it's false reporting."
In Georgia, McConathy pointed out, people involved in fake clown sightings or violent clown behavior could face stiffer charges, like making terroristic threats and acts. The "threat" carries one to five years in prison; the "act" is five to 10.
No one in area law enforcement, though, had a specific answer for the rise of the clowns.
"I don't know what in the world is going on," Ponder said.
The manager of Beauty and the Beast Costumes in Dayton, Tenn., ventured a few theories.
Halloween is approaching, Susan Stringer said. Plus, horror fans have been buzzing about the remake of Stephen King's "It," the fictional shape-shifter who assumes the identity of a clown to ensnare young children.
It really boiled down to this, she said: Clown costumes are dirt cheap, the social media age has viralized trends at atomic speed, and the majority of clowns are just pranksters. Stir everything together and you'll get a nice stew of worried people.
"It's just a phase," Stringer said, "and it will pass. A handful of people will get in trouble, like the kids in Red Bank. And then, next year, it'll be something else."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeter email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.