Bartholomew County judges seek more courtroom security after threats, incidents

The exterior of Bartholomew County Courthouse in Columbus, Ind., pictured, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Copyright, The Republic, Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ind. — Bartholomew County’s judges are asking the county council to add security for their courtrooms after a series of threats and incidents.

Bartholomew Circuit Judge Kelly Benjamin, Superior Court 1 Judge James Worton and Superior Court 2 Judge Jon Rohde are requesting an armed security officer be present in each of their courtrooms at all times when court is in session.

The hiring of three additional security officers would cost about $208,606 from mid-July until the end of this year, county officials estimated. Starting next year, the annual salary and benefits would run a maximum $416,613 annually. However, those figures still need to be checked and verified. There are already two recently-retired law enforcement officers prepared to accept those jobs, Bartholomew County Sheriff Chris Lane told the council.

All three judges told the council they have received personal threats on multiple occasions.

“On April 19, I was told a person who was unhappy with me was on the way to the courthouse to shoot me,’ Benjamin said. The threat kept the courthouse on lockdown for six hours.

Threats were also made against Benjamin’s husband and children, she said. Police kept officers outside the judge’s home for several days after the April incident. Security was also assigned outside her husband’s place of employment on the day of the threat, the judge said.

“And this was all from a family law case where a person didn’t like my decision,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin, Worton and council attorney Chris Monroe, who is a former Superior Court 1 judge, said some of the angriest defendants are involved in divorces, evictions and child custody cases.

Worton said a recent threat on his life by a defendant resulted in criminal charges being filed, along with a no contact order being issued.

Rohde told about the latest security threat, which happened Monday. Rhode had just ordered defendant Trevin LittleJohnto jail for breaking terms of his probation when the 35-year-old defendant ran out a courtroom door, Rohde said.

After he scuffled with a security officer and probation officer near the third floor stairwell, LittleJohn fled down the stairs to the second floor. That’s where another struggle took place near an area often used by children and parents in juvenile court, Benjamin said. Juvenile court was not in session, Benjamin said.

Worton, a former Columbus police chief, and one of his court reporters heard the struggle in the hallway, came out of the courtroom and assisted in the capture of LittleJohn, who was brought into submission with a stun gun, Rohde said.

“Judges should not have to take on security challenges themselves,” Worton said. “Our focus must be on testimony, evidence, arguments and witness demeanor.”

Rohde said he believes that if an officer were inside his courtroom near the second entrance, the very least that would have happened was that LittleJohn would have been confined to the courtroom,” Rohde told the council. “It would not have spread into the hall, down the stairs and onto the second floor.”

For more on this story, see Wednesday’s Republic.