07/29/09 — Courthouse security officers have seen it all, including snakes

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Courthouse security officers have seen it all, including snakes

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 29, 2009 1:46 PM

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Security guards look for any metal objects on people entering the William Street entrance to the Wayne County Courthouse.

Security guard Cpl. Laticia Garcia recalls the day a man stripped down to his underwear to pass through the metal detector at the Wayne County Courthouse after his first trips through set off the alarm.

While that and other instances can make for some funny stories, Ms. Garcia, site supervisor for Sentry Security, the company charged with courthouse security, wants the public to remember that security at the building is not a joke, that it is for their safety and that those who bring in banned items will have them confiscated.

As for the stripper, "He came through this machine three or four times and he said, 'I don't have anything on.' Then he said, 'Oh, well, I'll just take everything off,'" Ms. Garcia said. "He took all of his clothes off and laid it on that desk. He walked through in his boxers and T-shirt. He took off everything, including his shoes."

Even to someone used to the unusual, Ms. Garcia found the incident a little hard to believe.

"I was stunned in amazement that he did that. I couldn't say anything. There was nothing that I could say. He took his clothes and went and got on the elevator. I guess he went to the restroom and got dressed. That's what he did. That was the funniest thing I have ever seen."

Then there was the puppy.

"A lady walked through and the puppy was actually in her bag," security guard Daymion Stevens said. "The puppy popped out and I jumped back because I didn't know what it was and I told her she had to take the puppy back out and that was that."

The guards have just about seen it all.

That includes at least one brush with dental wear.

"This man came in and he had false teeth," Stevens said. "He walked through and I told him he had to take everything out of his pockets. He said, 'my teeth have metal on it. This is the only thing I have on me metal' and he took his teeth out and threw them into the bucket. I said, 'Sir you cannot take your teeth out.' So he took his teeth and put them back in his mouth and walked through."

Another man came through and took out a retainer, dropped it in the basket and kept walking and did not retrieve it, Ms. Garcia said. She kept the retainer wrapped and in a plastic container for about a month while she tried unsuccessfully to track down the owner.

"You would not believe some of the stuff that we deal with," she said.

The unbelievable includes a 5-foot boa constrictor.

It happened about four months ago at the Department of Social Services building on East Ash Street, said Anthony Jones, operations supervisor for Sentry Security. He did not experience it first-hand, but spoke to those who did.

"She said she had just brought the snake from the vet and had an appointment that she couldn't miss and she didn't want to leave the snake in the car," Jones said.

"Understand you are going into a building that has infant children being treated and you have a live boa constrictor that they are wanting you to allow them to take into this building," said Dave Grimes, president of Sentry Security.

"Not only that, 90 percent of people are afraid of snakes," Jones added. "My understanding is that it was about 5 feet long. When I talked with county officials, they told me to please let the guards know that if it doesn't have shoulders, it can't come inside the building."

Arrangements are made for people with service animals to pass through security, he said.

Ms. Garcia, who has been stationed at the courthouse since October, said the most common items confiscated on a daily basis are pocketknives. They also have confiscated a stun gun, nails, screwdrivers, steak knives and even butcher knives and mace.

"We get a lot of mace," she said.

While no firearms have been found, it is not uncommon to find ammunition -- 12-gauge shotgun shells, 7mm mag rifle bullets, .22, .38 and .45 caliber and others.

"I think most of the time, from what I hear from the guards, is the person says, 'I forgot I had it in my pocket. I was shooting and forgot it was in my pocket,'" Jones said.

And there was even the woman who was upset when she lost the claw hammer she was carrying in her pocketbook.

The guards have even found crack cocaine on the floor, apparently dropped when someone reached into their pocket.

"Most comply when asked to empty their projects," Ms. Garcia said. While others, she said, "give a lot of feedback."

"We confiscate and if they want to argue with us we direct then to the signs (listing banned items next to the courthouse doors) and that normally ends the argument," Stevens said.

"You meet a lot of good people, and I work with a lot of good people," Ms. Garcia said. "I have a very good crew and good boss and that makes a difference. Doing this job, people think we only just sit here and scan people and bring them in, but that is not everything. We are an information desk. We are a deterrent for people with altercations and we have even been known to get in between people when they get into an altercation."

The security personnel, who are trained and licensed by the state, not only serve as peacekeepers, they help the handicapped as well, she said.

"Customer service is what we are here for," she said. "A lot of people are very unhappy when they have to come through here. They get upset, but people don't realize that while people are coming in here, everybody is not coming in here for the same reason and they don't have the same mind frame and we do on occasion find weapons on people or items that can be used as weapons."

Grimes estimates that close to 1,000 items have been seized over the nearly three years that his company has been in charge of security.

"Out of those, only four (complaints) have come to me," Grimes said.

After explaining the process, only person one was still irritated, he said.

Grimes, a native of the Nahunta community, moved back to the area several years ago. Grimes was in law enforcement in the military and for many years in New Hanover County where he had experience in undercover drug operations. Jones, too, has years of experience in security, including work at Raleigh-Durham Airport.

"We try to make the experiences as painless as possible," Grimes said of the courthouse security. "The protocol that was adopted and accepted in the beginning was that anything that you would lose in an airport basically would be what you would lose in the courthouse. The difference here is if you get caught you don't get arrested."

"If you go in (an airport) with ammo they are going to take you to an interview room and you will be detained and they will want to know why you have that," Jones said.

By law, anything seized is turned over to the Sheriff's Office for destruction.

No one is excepted from the rules except on-duty law officers.

"It doesn't make any difference if you are a lawyer or district attorney," Jones said. "It doesn't make any difference who you are, if you walk in through that door, the public door, you have to go through the magnetometer.

"The biggest thing I would like for the public to understand is that if we made any exceptions we'd be spending all of our time hearing what the exception was. The point we want everybody to understand is that there is no venue for us to hear what you think our exception is"

"The county is in charge," Grimes said. "We do not have leeway, we either do what we are told or they'll find somebody who will do what they are told. In society today you have got a choice do you want to be safe or do want to be privileged? I think most people would choose to be safe. The county's intent when they did this was not to play Big Brother. The county's intent was to make the people who went into these county buildings safe. Sometimes you have to be a bit inconvenience in order to be safe."