With the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City, public-service employees everywhere have become a bit jittery at the mention of bombs. So when a suspicious-looking box was left outside the Metro-Dade Justice Building one morning last month, a predictable chain reaction of confusion was unleashed. Anxious occupants (including some judges) fled the ten-story building on NW Twelfth Street near Twelfth Avenue.
A few workers had panic attacks.
Though the box turned out to be a dud, something of an explosion did take place nonetheless. Disgruntled staffers in the seventh-floor office of the criminal courts division of the Dade County Clerk's Office drafted two letters of protest alleging that their supervisors forbade them to leave the building.
Criminal courts administrators maintain that proper procedures were followed, that some employees merely misunderstood the situation and blew it out of proportion, so to speak. Many of the workers themselves are afraid to speak openly about the incident for fear of retaliation. "We weren't informed about the bomb threat," says one clerk who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Pardon me, but fuck you: If my life is threatened, I'm walking out of here."
The episode has further heightened tensions in the criminal courts division, where employees' complaints about unfair treatment at the hands of management have been addressed in two recent New Times cover stories ("Crushed," which ran November 3, 1994, and "Union Boss," which appeared in the December 15, 1994 issue).
Though administrators and staffers give differing accounts of the events of Wednesday, April 26, some facts are clear. Shortly after 9:00 a.m. a worker found a box outside the building, in a spot nicknamed "chicken corner" because it seems to be the site of choice for voodoo and Santeria practitioners who wish to bring good luck to defendants. Metro-Dade and City of Miami bomb squads were called in, and it was decided the package should be blown up. At this point, workers in the court's traffic division, whose glass-lined offices are located on the first floor, were instructed to vacate the premises.
Word spread through the justice building, prompting more evacuations. In a memo written after the incident, building manager Elizabeth Timpson acknowledged, "Rumors began to fly and before we knew what happened, several courtrooms decided to evacuate.... As a result, we had two people fall and three people had seizures. Rescue was called for all but one individual."
But neither the police nor Timpson ever ordered that the entire building be cleared, as they could have if they'd felt the problem warranted such action. (Timpson refused requests that she comment for this story.)
When he learned of the threat, says criminal courts division chief Leonard Arnaiz, he checked with the building's security staff. "I was informed that there was no problem and no evacuation," recalls Arnaiz, who relayed that information to the staff. He then went down to the first floor to check things out and returned to repeat that "there was no evacuation and no authority to leave." Arnaiz says that because the people in charge weren't evacuating the building, he wasn't about to. "You have to rely on the structure of evacuation procedures," he maintains. "If you have hundreds of people and each decides whether or not to leave, you'd have mass confusion."
And that, says criminal courts division records specialist Elizabeth Hester, was exactly what was occurring on the seventh floor. "The whole office was panicking," Hester remembers. "There are bombs across the United States, and if anything happens in this building, we should be told about it," she adds, referring to the fact that she and her co-workers learned about the bomb threat via the courthouse grapevine rather than from their supervisors.
Others in the criminal courts division allege that their bosses threatened to write them up for possible disciplinary action if they left the building. (Arnaiz says he knows nothing about such threats.) Veteran workers were especially nervous, because they remembered an incident about a dozen years ago when a pipe bomb blew up in a bathroom and the building was not evacuated. A few years after that incident, one worker recalls, criminal courts division executive officer Joe McKinney was asked, "How will you know when a bomb threat is real?" His alleged response: "We'll know when it blows up."
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McKinney denies any such exchange ever took place.
Within a few days of the recent scare, two petitions began circulating. The more vehement was directed at County Clerk Harvey Ruvin, and insisted that the evacuation plan be changed. "What will be done about the prejudice concerning evacuations?" it reads. "Do we sit here working as if nothing is going on in the building, or do we evacuate like other employees? We demand to be informed concerning matters as important as this!!!" The letter is signed "Exasperated Employees."
Ruvin, who says he never received the petition, says, "There are a lot of fears following Oklahoma, and this incident will cause me to look at where the lines of authority are in emergencies." He says he also intends to speak with his employees about their worries. "There's a legitimate human concern that I want to deal with," asserts the clerk, adding that he'll make sure there is no retaliation against employees who complained.
When the bomb squad detonated the box, no explosives were found; Metro-Dade Police spokeswoman Stephanie Cohen confirms that the officers blasted to smithereens a white dove. (Among voodoo adherents, a dove is supposed to promote peace at a trial. Found next to the box was an egg, which is said to help make a case collapse.)
Though court spokesman Mort Lucoff notes that there are far more sacrificial rites than bomb scares at the courthouse (he doesn't remember any of the latter in the past six years), Elizabeth Hester of the criminal courts division is not at all amused. "Regardless of whether it was a chicken or a duck," she says, "we've got a panic in the U.S. about bombs, and we should be alerted.