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It happened here, in court

Tom, left, and Will Hanlon discuss the Sunshine Skyway exhibit. Their father David was the lead state counsel in the case.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Tom, left, and Will Hanlon discuss the Sunshine Skyway exhibit. Their father David was the lead state counsel in the case.

TAMPA — It was the summer of 1995 and Deputy U.S. Marshal Brenda Ferebee had a big job: running security while 16 members of the notorious Outlaws Motorcycle Club faced trial on charges involving drugs, guns, arson, robbery, extortion, kidnapping and murder.

As a heavily armed motorcade transported them through blocked streets of downtown and deputy marshals stood with guns on rooftops, as a tough female judge awaited their arrival, Ferebee could only brace for what was ahead.

"With two women in charge of this trial," she said, "we were in for a bumpy ride."

Ferebee's written account, along with those of other key players in some of Tampa's most memorable federal cases, are now immortalized in a free exhibit that officially opened Friday in the Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse.

The Tampa courthouse project is one of five across the federal court system's Middle District of Florida, paid for exclusively with attorney bar dues and intended to educate people about the district's history and the workings of the judicial system.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Jenkins said she hopes the exhibit will help demystify courts in an age where more people can name former American Idol judge Paula Abdul than judges on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Members of the district's historical society worked with Smithsonian-trained curators and a budget between $70,000 and $80,000 to come up with glossy, interactive exhibits on the downtown courthouse's first and third floors.

The one on the third floor explains the difference between federal and state courts, civil and criminal cases and why judges wear black robes — turns out, John Adams originally wanted them to wear English-style wigs.

On the first floor, displays highlight a handful of Tampa's most historic cases. Narrowing the list was a challenge, said U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew. Judges and lawyers weighed in and, along with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club cases, came up with this list:

• The 1995 Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. bankruptcy case.

• The 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster, with all the cases that stemmed from it.

• The 1970 showdown between then-Gov. Claude Kirk and District Judge Ben Krentzman over racial integration in schools.

• The late 1980s undercover investigation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which amounted to one of the larger money-laundering prosecutions in history.

The display tells the most colorful piece of that story: An undercover agent infiltrated the Colombian drug cartel for five years and brought a who's who of global banking and cartel members to downtown Tampa to celebrate a fake wedding.

They exited their limousines, drinks in hand, thinking they were headed to a bachelor party, when federal agents took them by surprise.

The headline over each display says it all:

"It happened here."

FAST FACTS

Visit the exhibit

The Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse, 801 N Florida Ave., Tampa, is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no charge to view the exhibits. For information, call the courthouse at (813) 301-5400.

It happened here, in court 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 10:33pm]

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