WHEELING - Nearly 300 Wheeling-area high school students are sneaking around neighborhoods, hiding in yards and cars and stalking their targets with water guns that could be mistaken for real weapons. Some are wearing camouflage, masks and bandannas.
Their goal? To shoot their target in the face with a squirt gun, and then take a picture. Some of those photos can be seen on Twitter.
It's all part of a game called "Assassins," and Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger is concerned it could lead to a real-life tragedy.
He said the game involves 135 two-person teams of students from Wheeling Park High School, Wheeling Central Catholic High School and The Linsly School. The teams are assigned another team to target. The team must hunt their target and squirt them with a water gun, then take a picture of the wet target to show elimination.
In the end, the winning team will collect more than $1,300 taken from an entry fee of participants. Assigned teams have two weeks to eliminate their target to avoid elimination.
Schwertfeger said the teams cannot attack their target during school, work, prom or at a sporting event. They cannot break into a house to ambush a target, the guns cannot look like real guns and the police cannot be called.
"Because of time restrictions, many of these students are hunting their targets late at night or early in the morning when it is dark," he said.
"I have been made aware of students chasing their targets in vehicles, running into local restaurants and stores to hit their targets and hiding in bushes or sheds."
The group, in its Twitter feed, remarked this morning that "We made the front page guys," referring to the story in The Intelligencer. Photos on the feed show youngsters being eliminated from the game in various neighborhoods and also on the streets of downtown.
A set of rules also emerges through the feed, such as restaurants or businesses that forbid the game from being played within its doors.
Schwertfeger said some of the activity could look like a real breaking and entering or an armed assault. He said one Wheeling police officer returning home from work encountered some players sneaking around his house.
"It's important for our officers to be aware of this game and that they exercise extreme caution and sound judgment in the event they are dispatched to a prowler call or a suspicious vehicle or individual call," he said.
On Thursday, a group of high school students taking part in the Leadership Wheeling Youth program at the Ogden Newspapers Printing and Technology Center discussed the game with one of the newspaper's editors. While discussing some of the more creative ways players have eliminated their target - hiding in a trash can outside someone's home for an hour takes a lot of patience - they also noted that at least one player had used a construction vehicle, with flashing lights, to pull over a target on a public road and eliminate them.
That's the type of activity that concern's Schwertfeger.
The chief said the game may be especially troubling in Wheeling to some residents who may be on edge because of two recent bank robberies, a shooting on Wheeling Island and a spike in home invasions.
"If I were in a restaurant or other public place and saw this happen, I would engage the shooter," he said.
He said the students could easily end up in a dangerous encounter with a police officer or an armed resident wanting to protect their property.
Schwertfeger said he is aware of the allure of the game. He played 30 years ago when he was a criminal justice student at a local college.
"It was fun back then, but we are living in a different time today," he said.
Ohio County Schools Superintendent Dianna Vargo is also aware of the situation.
"We are working with the Wheeling Police Department and our prevention resource officers to make parents aware of a game being played using squirt guns by high school students throughout the Ohio Valley," she said.