South Bend Tribune Article

Judge Calls for Security Review After Atlanta Killings

March 16, 2005
From the South Bend Tribune

Tribune Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND -- The shooting deaths at an Atlanta courthouse last week should prompt a review of local security measures, a St. Joseph County judge said Tuesday.

"Our mantra (is) learn from the mistakes of others and not have those mistakes occur here," Circuit Judge Michael G. Gotsch said.

Gotsch hopes to arrange a meeting of lawyers, judges and law enforcement officials to discuss security issues after a rape suspect on trial in Atlanta overpowered a deputy, took her gun and shot a judge and court reporter to death.

The gunman, Brian Nichols, also is accused of killing a deputy outside the courthouse and a federal agent while he was on the run. Nichols surrendered a day later after holding a woman hostage.

"The sooner, the better, obviously," Gotsch added of a security review.

The judge remembers a similar analysis taking place after a 1987 bombing inside the Howard County Courthouse in Kokomo.

In that case, a man being tried on drug charges smuggled a bomb into the courthouse and detonated it, killing himself and injuring 15 others, including his lawyer.

The incident led to a series of security improvements in St. Joseph County, among them the metal detectors just inside the building's east and west entrances, each manned by a deputy sheriff.

Criminal defendants in custody are escorted into court wearing wrist and leg shackles. But other defendants and parties in civil cases can move about freely after passing through a metal detector.

As with the Atlanta suspect, the shackles often are removed from defendants on trial once they are in court so jurors are not prejudiced.

Jaimee Thirion, county police spokeswoman, said extra security is provided for certain trials, such as the current death penalty trial of Wayne Kubsch. But there's not always an armed officer in every court, she said.

Most problems are caused by visitors, she added. Fights break out occasionally and people unintentionally bring knives, pepper spray and, at least twice in recent memory, guns with them.

Officers must guard against having their service weapons taken away in all situations, Thirion said. The Atlanta incident "reminds them how careful they have to be" on a daily basis, she said.

"I know that we're always trying to be safe," she added.

Denny Dreibelbis and Jeff Hoffman, both court security officers with the Marshall County Sheriff's Department, can remember close calls with court security.

Dreibelbis remembers an elderly lady bringing an automatic handgun in her purse. She'd forgotten about the gun until the metal detector caught it.

Dreibelbis checked to make sure she had a permit for it before returning it to her -- unloaded -- when she left. He locked it away for safekeeping until she left.

Hoffman remembers almost having to put handcuffs on a man who argued that he didn't have to give up his beloved pocket knife.

Both say they're especially careful in transporting inmates, who are either cuffed together or cuffed behind the back.

Security's always a concern, they say, whether they're transporting prisoners or dealing with families affected by a domestic or criminal case.

"It's pretty docile," Dreibelbis says. "But it's that one in 100,000 that makes the news."

Hoffman agrees.

"You can't take anything for granted," he says. "If someone's volatile and they go off, it could happen anywhere."

Judge Robert Bowen of Marshall Superior Court I says he's most concerned when there's a protective order case or when there's a domestic case involving divorce, custody, visitation or child support.

In such cases, he says, emotions on both sides can run high, leaving officers to oversee a "potentially explosive" situation that could endanger any of the parties involved.

However, Bowen says he's concerned for the litigants involved in such cases rather than for his own personal safety.