Pat Carr, director of Tinley Park's Emergency Management Agency, blames an erratic automatic door signal or malfunctioning anti-theft equipment at a shopping center for leaving shoppers temporarily stranded outside their late-model cars.
Carr said a radio signal emitted in the Brookside Marketplace at Harlem Avenue and 191st Street jammed the vehicles' remote-control fobs.
Once back on the road, the shoppers headed to people like Jake Banjeglav, a service writer at Bettenhausen Fiat in Tinley Park, and Kyle Hunter, a service consultant at Phillips Chevrolet in Frankfort, for support. Banjeglav and Hunter said the problem had disappeared before the motorists arrived at the dealerships.
Carr said investigators pinpointed the problem as being in a small area at the north end of the shopping center. Vehicles "parked close to the front door" of the building that houses Kohl's department store and Dick's Sporting Goods experienced the most serious problems, he said.
"We'd never seen anything like it," he said, noting the shoppers also called village government looking for answers. That prompted Village Manager Scott Niehaus and Mayor Ed Zabrocki to contact Carr about Tinley Park's "Bermuda Triangle."
"It's a public safety issue when you have 20 or 30 people who are cold and can't get in their cars," Carr said.
The big question was what was causing the interference.
Carr said investigators ruled out two nearby commercial radio broadcast towers. They also ruled out a criminal motive after determining police had received no complaints of car break-ins in that area.
Although reported sightings in the Tinley Park skies have caught the attention of the Illinois Mutual UFO Network and Center for UFO Studies, Carr said investigators never seriously considered extraterrestrial involvement in the automotive malfunctions.
"I was in the Air Force 23 years — maybe they're coming for me," he said, joking about past reported sightings.
The real answer came as investigators "talked to the businesses and we talked to the people and even did an Internet search," Carr said. "We found out it happens quite frequently" around retail businesses.
While many of the problems were linked to Kohl's, all the stores have automatic doors and most have anti-theft equipment, both of which periodically emit radio waves in the same frequency range as the remote fobs, Carr said.
If doors are out of adjustment or a part fails, the radio waves are transmitted continuously, he said.