Courthouse gets 'all clear' after bomb threat

Marilyn Tennissen Mar. 2, 2009, 6:20am

Police keep employees and the public out of the Jefferson County Courthouse after receiving a bomb threat March 2.

For about 45 minutes, county employees and local residents had to drop what they were doing and vacate the Jefferson County Courthouse after a bomb threat on Monday.

At around 10 a.m., an anonymous caller to the Beaumont Police Department said the courthouse would be blown up in half an hour. BPD immediately notified the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, which handles courthouse security, and deputies then notified department heads and discussed the situation with elected officials.

The first day of the work week is also the busiest at the courthouse, with county residents showing up for jury selection, docket calls and other courthouse business, so officials had hundreds of lives to consider when calling for the evacuation.

Sheriff's Office Deputy Chief Zena Stephens said new security precautions at the courthouse made the actuality of a bomb inside the building unlikely.

Just a few months ago, all members of the public began passing through metal detectors and having their bags scanned before entering the courthouse. Employees bypass the scanners through their own entrance, but now have to wear identification badges at all times.

Nonetheless, officials chose to err on the side of caution and called for the evacuation of the building.

"It was a tough decision, but you have to take these things seriously," Stephens said.

She said officials also had to consider the possibility of a disgruntled employee making a threat.

As the building was evacuated police cars blocked the street in front of the courthouse and bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed to search the building. In the meantime, judges, clerks and attorneys milled around and chatted, while many residents could be heard on cell phones explaining their delay to employers and friends.

When the half-hour deadline passed at around 10:30 a.m. and the dogs turned up nothing, the decision was made to allow re-entry to the courthouse.

Even though that meant a line formed at the doors as residents again had to pass through the security check, Stephens said the decision to evacuate was the right one.

"An hour's delay isn't much to ask for peoples' lives," Stephens said.

The courthouse was last evacuated when an inmate at the privately run jail at the sheriff's office using a fake gun tried to take hostages in July 2007.

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