It’s springtime in New England. The birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing — and the alarm bells are ringing at your local courthouse. So far this year, nine bomb threats have been made against the Connecticut judicial facilities.
The telephoned threats aggravate judicial employees, attorneys and private litigants alike. State courthouses in Ansonia, Hartford, Milford, New Haven, Stamford, Tolland and Waterbury have been affected in 2013. Each of the incidents was investigated by State Police and no bombs were discovered.
Stamford’s courthouse was threatened three times between February and May, a frequency that Connecticut’s chief judicial marshal said "seems unusual." Authorities said three other threats were made by a New Haven woman who has been arrested and faces 10 years in prison. The remaining three threats, along with the Stamford threats, are under investigation.
Authorities acknowledged that many times the persons who make bomb threats are never identified. But some are, and over the 18 years O’Donovan Murphy has spent with the Judicial Marshal Services, profiles have emerged of perpetrators with faulty alarm clocks or with grudges against the judiciary.
"Sometimes it’s someone who’s … going to be late for court," said Murphy, and other times it’s "someone who’s upset with something the court has done."
Threats against a courthouse are relayed from Judicial Marshal Services to the courthouse’s administrative or presiding judge, who determines whether cause exists for evacuation. Threatened courthouses generally undergo sweeps by state police specializing in bomb detection and often by explosive-detecting dogs.
One series of bomb threats — made against three courthouses on March 8 — led to the arrest of 30-year-old New Haven resident Jennifer Chirico by federal agents. Chirico has been charged with making telephonic bomb threats, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
According to an affidavit sworn by Special Agent Samuel DiPasquale III of the FBI, Chirico was to appear at the Waterbury courthouse that day to answer charges including larceny, criminal trespass, criminal mischief and failure to appear. DiPasquale said Chirico confessed that, when her friend who was to drive her to court failed to get out of bed on time, she and her friend made numerous threatening telephone calls.
The FBI documented seven calls that day, made to court clerks, state and local police and the media. Threats were recorded not just against the Waterbury courthouse but also the federal courthouse in New Haven and a courthouse in Hartford. Federal authorities said they traced the calls back to mobile telephones possessed by Chirico and her associates.
But threats made from pay phones or other, more anonymous means are harder to chase down. State Police Lt. Paul Vance said "appropriate time and resources" are devoted to investigating bomb threats against courthouses. Progress has been made in the investigation of at least one of the Stamford bomb threats, Vance said.
And while bomb threats may be frequent, thankfully bombings are not.
"I think it’s relatively difficult, with the levels of security we do have, to get something [into a courthouse]," Murphy said.
These include metal detectors, x-ray machines, and other security measures which Murphy declined to identify. Nevertheless, Murphy said every threat is taken seriously and results in a thorough sweep of the facility.
Whether or not substantiated, a bomb threat can wreak havoc on a court’s docket. Summoning State Police technicians and sweeping a courthouse can take hours, time in which the business of the court is put on hold.
On one chilly morning in February, dozens of attorneys, litigants, and court employees lined up on the Hoyt Street sidewalk facing Stamford’s courthouse. Some shoved their hands into their pockets and others puffed steam as the State Police announced that not just the courthouse but also the parking garage would be sealed until the afternoon. Lawyers grumbled into mobile phones as they shuffled off to diners and coffee shops on Bedford Street.
Now, with improving weather, legal professionals tired of breathing air conditioning and craving sunshine might appreciate a bit of time in the outdoors. If the bomb threats and evacuations continue, it was suggested to Murphy, perhaps the judiciary could adapt by holding proceedings outdoors.
"Physically conduct court outside? That would be nice on a day like today, wouldn’t it?" he chuckled, on a sunny Thursday with the mercury rising to a balmy 90 degrees in Hartford. "But that would be the judge’s call. " •