EFFINGHAM — Amanda Smith has been gathering her family to sleep in the living room this week because of the fear that she says began Sunday evening.
"My daughter and a friend were sitting on the porch when they saw a man dressed up in a clown costume," said Smith, who lives on the corner of Oak Street and Virginia Avenue in Effingham. "They said he was shining a flashlight on them. They were scared to death."
Over the past several weeks, clowns acting suspiciously have have been spotted across the country. A recent Rolling Stone article said sightings of "creepy clowns" have been reported in several states, including Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Effingham police said in a news release Friday that nobody wearing a clown costume has been arrested here. But police say that doesn't mean arrests won't be made.
Terming it a "nationwide fad," Effingham police say in the release that dressing up as a clown and "committing any act with the intent to cause any person or persons undue alarm" is a criminal offense.
Smith said the clown re-appeared Thursday afternoon after her family went out to eat, apparently using a nearby vacant home as a base. She added that the clown, who she believes to be male, is frightening her family.
"This just scares the (expletive) out of me," she said. "We have all been sleeping in the living room since Sunday, so I know we are all safe."
Effingham police officers searched the outside of the home in the 1000 block of Virginia Avenue after the alleged Thursday afternoon sighting, but left without making any arrests.
"The Effingham Police Department will take appropriate and necessary enforcement action to uphold the law if reports of persons dressing up as clowns with the intent to alarm and disturb are received," according to the release.
Effingham Det. Scott Volpi said there's nothing illegal about dressing up as a clown. But he acknowledged that there is a level of fear in the area that might want to make somebody think twice about doing so.
"A lot of parents are just scaring themselves silly," Volpi said. "People are on edge about clowns. All that kids are talking about are clowns."
Volpi acknowledged that it might not be a good time to dress as a clown, even in jest.
"Somewhere, somebody dressed as a clown is going to get beaten or worse," he said.
Clay County authorities have already warned against intentionally frightening people. In a joint news release, the Clay County Sheriff's Department and Flora Police Department said previous reports of "clowning around" were found to be juveniles pranking their friends. Nonetheless, authorities say costumed people with the intent only to scare will be arrested.
"Anyone caught using this opportunity to use these costumes with only the intent to scare people and cause disturbances will be arrested," according to the release.
Bill Grimes can be reached at email@example.com or 217-347-7151, x132.