Originally created 04/09/00

Courthouse security increases



AIKEN -- By the end of May, people with business at the Aiken County Courthouse will have to submit to security checks before entering the building.

The new procedures for gaining access to the courthouse are a part of a beefed-up security system for the Aiken County Judicial Center that should be in full operation before the end of the summer, according to County Administrator Bill Shepherd and sheriff's Maj. Jody Rowland.

"It's a preventive measure made necessary by the ongoing length of the court dockets which have stretched from about two weeks a month to more than three," Mr. Shepherd said.

No one incident prompted the increased security measures, Mr. Shepherd said, but he noted that an increased number of courthouse incidents throughout the nation caused sufficient concern to warrant a close look at the county judicial center.

In August 1998, a janitor in Nebraska was shot to death inside the Kimball courthouse where he worked; police say the gunman was angry about his arrest earlier in the day. In Norwalk, Conn., a driverless Ford Explorer, rigged with a piece of wood so its gas pedal was jammed, crashed through the front doors of the courthouse in October 1998. Police say an argument led to a fatal shooting on the steps of a New York courthouse in 1998.

"We have had no such incidents in Aiken County, and I am not personally aware of any threats," Mr. Shepherd said.

But there have been some close calls:

Across the street from the Aiken Courthouse on Hampton Avenue, George Neal lured his estranged wife into an attorney's office with a phony story in 1995. In a back room, Mr. Neal pulled out a gun and killed her before turning the gun on himself. Sabrenia Rouse Neal had been in a domestic violence shelter before Mr. Neal called and told her he needed her to sign legal papers.

Sheriff's bailiffs have reported finding knives and drugs when checking people as they come into the courtrooms.

An incident with two eggs and black powder caused a stir in the courthouse a few months ago. Someone apparently put large eggs -- ostrich eggs, as some court officials describe them -- and black powder behind a toilet in the lady's bathroom on the second floor. Someone with expertise in voodoo told court officials the placement of the items was consistent with the acts of a root doctor.

The security upgrade means everyone entering the courthouse -- from people making child support payments to an attorney filing a lawsuit -- will be checked for weapons and monitored. Currently, only those people entering the criminal, civil of family courtrooms are checked.

Emotions run high as judges preside over divorces, child custody and domestic violence cases, Maj. Rowland said. In General Sessions court, criminal suspects and their victims are occasionally forced to face each other in courthouse hallways and bathrooms -- before they are checked for weapons.

"I would hope that the public would be grateful in knowing that when they are in such a highly emotional public setting that they are sitting in a secure location, knowing that the person next to him has also been checked," the major said.

Sheriff Howard Sellers joined a list of 10 officials in requesting the Aiken County Council to beef up security. In his memo to the county council, Sheriff Sellers stated that the county has "narrowly avoided the worst-case scenarios many times."

"With our present technology and manpower, we are years behind in meeting the security needs and demands of the courthouse," the sheriff wrote, emphasizing that the upgrades needed to remain "user-friendly."

Phase I of the security upgrade, which is expected to be completed by April 21, will include re-keying of all entrances and exits, several of which will be closed to the public. Public access to the judicial center will be restricted to two entrances: one door under the front steps at the front or Park Avenue side of the building and the entrance off the parking lot between St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church and the judicial center.

Only employees, who will be required to wear badges, will use the rear entrance.

The security equipment that now controls access to the courtrooms is to be relocated to the public entrances. Everyone entering the judicial center must consent to a search of their person and any packages or purses and must present positive identification on demand by members of the security staff, Mr. Shepherd said.

The body searches will be done by pass-through scanning similar to those currently conducted at courtroom entrances.

Phase I simply amounts to tightening measuresalong the perimeters of the judicial center, Mr. Shepherd said.

Phase II includes the purchase of additional screening equipment to scan purses and packages, with bids going out before the end of April.

"In Phase I we had badge control for employees. and in Phase II we will probably have a form of punch in," Mr. Shepherd said.

Phase III will include installation of surveillance equipment and more providing security personnel.

In conjunction with the increased need for security staffing at the judicial center, plans are under way to privatize the civil process divisions, those members of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office that serve summonses or other papers. The deputies who are in the civil process division will be assigned to courthouse security.

Plans include building a security kiosk near the Chesterfield entrance, which is set to be closed to the public during Phase I. Target date for the completion of the three phases of the security upgrade is August.

"The day is coming when we're going to have a major incident in the courthouse," Maj. Rowland said, "and we want to prepare now."

Reach Pat Willis or Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.