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The recent discovery of a loaded .25-caliber handgun in a cellblock toilet at D.C. Superior Court has triggered a dragnet for the person who smuggled the small firearm, possibly inside his body, into the aging courthouse. “Certainly I was very alarmed by it. I’m doing everything in my power to determine how it got in here,” says Steve Conboy, acting U.S. marshal for the Superior Court complex. “This is gumshoe [work], literally beating the street, cultivating witnesses or informants.” A cleaning contractor found the loaded Raven MP-25, a tiny semiautomatic Saturday night special, under a pile of toilet paper in a steel cellblock toilet at 5 a.m. on Sept. 8. During court hours up to 25 prisoners at a time are crowded into the cell, which is roughly 10 feet by 15 feet with a short steel bench bolted to the wall. Investigators from the U.S. Marshals Service are questioning 49 prisoners who spent time in the cell on Sept. 7, some of whom were brought to court from the D.C. jail, while others were defendants who were “stepped back” — meaning they were taken into custody at court hearings. Prisoners from the D.C. jail or D.C. Metropolitan Police Department stations are searched before they arrive at court, but courthouse security officers still sometimes find weapons, drugs, or money during patdown searches. A prisoner possibly could have concealed the gun in a body cavity, with his body mass concealing the gun from a metal detector, Conboy says. “It’s not that remote of a possibility. We’ve had contraband that big smuggled in here before in body cavities,” he says. The investigation also hasn’t ruled out the possibility that a court employee could have placed the gun in the toilet, possibly to aid in an escape attempt. The investigation will use a grand jury to develop leads or suspects, and the U.S. Marshals Service will post a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction, Conboy says. Fingerprints could not be lifted from the gun, which was purchased in 1984 in Manassas, Va., Conboy says. Investigators believe a D.C. drug dealer owned the gun until 2001, when he committed suicide — but not with the recovered handgun. The trail of ownership since then has turned cold. The Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia wants to perform ballistics tests on the gun because a Raven handgun was used in a 15-year-old cold-case homicide there, Conboy says. Seeking leads, investigators have begun reviewing approximately 100 hours of telephone conversations that inmates at the D.C. jail made, along with videotape of the entrance to the Superior Court cellblock. Because of the age of the cellblock, individual cells are not under video surveillance, which would cost approximately $1 million to install, Conboy says. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III says the recovered handgun is “a very important matter of safety” but its presence in the cellblock represents an isolated incident. King says courthouse security is good but additional funding is needed to post a security officer in every courtroom. The discovery of the loaded gun has raised fears about courthouse security among some judges, lawyers, and court staff. Solo defense attorney Jensen Barber, who has seen unarmed defendants rush the bench and be tackled by security officers, says the smuggling of a gun into the courthouse is “pretty scary.” “Everybody has concerns about the security. The great unwashed masses of humanity come through there,” Barber says. “Nothing surprises me. A lot of people have nothing to lose.” The case highlights security constraints at the 1970s-era courthouse, caused both by space and budgetary considerations and a need to move thousands of people through court entrances in a timely manner. Approximately 315 security officers work at Superior Court. “This is the most highly visited building in the District of Columbia. Ten thousand people pass through here every day,” Conboy says. “It’s unbelievable what people come to court with: knives, guns, the whole gamut — hatchets, for that matter.” From June through August, security officers seized 440 weapons at the court entrances, with five weapons turned over to the MPD for possible prosecution. From 1988 to 1994, officers confiscated two loaded guns in the Superior Court cellblock before they could be used by prisoners, with one case resulting in charges against a prisoner from the D.C. jail, Conboy says. Within the past 18 months, an attorney was prosecuted for attempting to bring a firearm inside a briefcase into the courthouse, but Conboy did not have further details on that case. Conboy says he would need additional funding to double the number of security stations at the main entrance from two to four and to buy a cellblock imaging device, which, similar to an X-ray machine, can see through clothing. The Superior Court cellblock typically holds 350 prisoners per day in dank, dirty, noisy, and crowded quarters. During a tour of the cellblock last week, prisoners wearing orange jail jumpsuits or street clothes talked noisily in one cell, while others slept on the bare concrete floor. Officers oversee the cellblock from “the bubble,” a window-lined control room secured with a double-door “man trap” to prevent prisoners from forcing their way into the room.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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