The Great Barrier Beef

Federal Judge James Lawrence King's car got caught on a mechanical gizmo at his new office building -- and boy, did he see red!

On the question of whether the recently opened Federal Justice Building downtown should be named after Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, the jury is still out. But even as bigwigs on the judicial district's Civil Justice Advisory Group ponder the possibility of honoring the jurist for his 23 years of service on the federal bench, a less formal cadre has already attached his moniker to a small part of the new edifice on NE Fourth Street. If the exit from the building's parking garage becomes popularly known as King's Red Thing, however, it won't exactly be a tip of the public-service cap to a man who led the campaign for the structure, which houses the offices of several federal judges and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Supposedly all occupants of the new building had been briefed on the intricacies of the ground-level garage and its security system, designed to forestall assaults by terrorists. When a driver stops at the exit, a sensor under the car causes a steel door to roll up into the ceiling and a knee-high red barrier emblazoned with the word "STOP" to retract into the ground. At that point, a small traffic signal changes from red to green, the driver cruises out to NE Fourth Street, and the entire system resets for the next car, much like a set of pins at a bowling alley.

Apparently the instructions didn't make it to the chambers of Judge King, who learned the hard way. Late one evening last month, King wheeled his nine-year-old Honda Prelude around to the gate, where Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Udolf had already set the system in motion. Everything proceeded smoothly for the federal prosecutor: He waited for the door to ascend and the barrier to drop, watched as the light turned green, and tooled happily out to Fourth Street and the Udolf homestead.

Then came Judge King's turn.
"I pulled up and stopped," King recalls in a gentle drawl. "The door didn't come down. It didn't do anything! I hesitated, then I began to roll forward. I was doing only about one mile an hour." As the judge inched forward in his Prelude, the knee-high barrier suddenly began to rise. "The thing -- it looks like a bulldozer blade -- came up right in front of the front wheels and lifted my car up off the ground," he recounts.

Whereupon he did what any commuter would do under such circumstances. He abandoned ship, made for a nearby intercom, and attempted to summon the security command post in the building. "The marshal was not able to render any assistance," King remembers. "He didn't know what to do."

Another federal employee, meanwhile, had maneuvered his auto into position behind King's. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Gelber, an astute observer, happened to notice that King had dismounted his vehicle without shifting it out of drive or turning off the ignition. Only the front wheels had been raised off the garage floor, but the Prelude was a front-wheel-drive vehicle, which meant those wheels were turning, and would continue to turn if the barrier came down, causing the Honda to shoot out into the street, driverless. Gelber leaped from his car, dashed forward, and cut King's engine.

"We didn't know what to do," the judge resumes the story. "So Dan, very intelligently, said, 'Judge, maybe there's a triggering device somewhere. Maybe if I rock my car back and forth, we might trigger something.'" Gelber's tactic worked, but the adventure wasn't over A the steel door began bearing down from the ceiling. "I envisioned my car getting crunched A I baby that thing, you know," says King. "Anyway, when the bulldozer blade backs down, I jump in the car, crank it up, and move it as fast as I can, saying a little prayer. Luckily I got out just in time. The door probably would not have missed a longer car. It probably would've taken the tail end off Judge [Edward] Davis's Lincoln." As it was, King's car suffered only minor cosmetic damage.

The next morning, officials from the U.S. Marshals Service, which is in charge of security in the building, were in King's office when he arrived. According to King, they apologized for the mishap, offered to pay for the damage to King's car, and put up a sign in the garage advising drivers not to move forward until the system resets.

King says he's not the only one who has done battle with the red "bulldozer blade." District Judge Donald Graham also has popped a wheelie on the barrier, as have a couple of secretaries. (Judge Graham didn't return phone calls for comment. Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal James J. Tassone says he can't confirm or deny that King -- or anyone else -- had a run-in with the so-called bulldozer blade. "I'm not going to make any comment about anything having to do with security matters," Tassone snaps.)

But King's mishap didn't end with apologetic handshakes from the U.S. Marshals. The day after the incident, security officer Charles Fantroy, the man the judge had summoned on the intercom, learned that he was to be transferred to a less desirable post in another building. Coincidence? Perhaps. But according to stories churning forth from the gossip mill, Fantroy, who is highly popular among workers at the new building, was transferred as a result of a complaint lodged by the judge. Allegedly, King was peeved because Fantroy told him he "shouldn't have" pulled up before allowing the system to reset.

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