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Evacuation at Hillsborough County courthouse caused by gun-like lighter

The “gun” behind the hubbub was a cigarette lighter.

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office

The “gun” behind the hubbub was a cigarette lighter.

TAMPA — Law enforcement forced 3,200 people to evacuate Hillsborough County's George E. Edgecomb Courthouse Wednesday after a security worker discovered that someone had slipped through an X-ray scanning machine with what appeared to be a semiautomatic pistol stuffed in a bag.

After a full-day investigation, sheriff's detectives discovered the supposed weapon was a lighter.

But it's still unclear how a Tampa woman was able to walk through security, grab her bag from the conveyor belt and move into the building before a security worker viewing the X-ray monitors recognized a picture of a gun and notified others.

And the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office also wants to know why it took security more than two hours to notify them that there might be a gun in the building. "We do most of the security inside," said Col. Jim Previtera.

The Sheriff's Office has 130 bailiffs assigned to the county courthouse, but their primary charge is to secure courtrooms. Hillsborough County government supplies unsworn security workers to operate the front-door screenings.

Previtera said that at 8:45 a.m., the woman placed the bag on the conveyor and the county security officers realized quickly that there was an image of a gun on the screen, but for an unknown reason the woman was gone before anyone could stop her.

Security notified the Sheriff's Office more than two hours later.

The noontime evacuation lasted an hour and 45 minutes and caused a measure of chaos outside the downtown building, 800 E Twiggs St., where people chatted curbside and television news cameras struggled to capture the scene.

Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said word went out over loudspeakers ordering everyone to collect their belongings and move out.

Dawn Emigh, 45, was at the courthouse for jury duty when the word went out. As she waited in line to go back in, she admitted she was somewhat nervous. "Hopefully, they'll do a better job, right?" she said.

After reviewing surveillance video for two hours, sheriff's detectives identified a woman who stopped and talked to a Tampa detective as the person with the supposed gun.

Previtera refused to release the woman's name, saying she was not being charged with a crime. But he said she is from Tampa, and had come to the building for a family matter in court.

The city detective took them to the woman's house, Previtera said, where she produced the lighter and told them she had taken the toy from her nephew because of how real it looked.

"Right now, we are just sending the information to the State Attorney's Office to find out if they want to charge her at all," he said. "But we haven't charged her with anything because it seemed as if she just forgot she had it."

Neither Previtera nor Carl Harness, the county's public safety administrator, would say how many security workers are employed at the courthouse or what, if any action, was being taken concerning the employee or employees who saw the gun-like object.

The purpose of the evacuation, Previtera said, was to empty the building as quickly as possible so security could sweep the space for any danger, then thoroughly rescreen everyone as they re-entered.

About 25 deputies from the Sheriff's Homeland Security Division were called in to assist with clearing the building, while Tampa police sent in another 10 officers to help maintain order.

Previtera said the Sheriff's Office is working along with county administration to conduct an internal review of exactly what took place.

The county government also supplies security personnel to the County Center on Kennedy Boulevard, the Plant City courthouse, and government offices at the Floriland Mall, Harness said.

"I made my anger really clear regarding the way this was handled," Previtera said. "County Administrator Pat Bean will be investigating how this happened."

Staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Evacuation at Hillsborough County courthouse caused by gun-like lighter 08/05/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 5, 2009 11:23pm]
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