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Guests are not only unwelcome but also disgusting

On the floor behind Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober's desk sits a rat trap. A big rat trap, waiting for a big rat. The bait is a chunk of Slim Jim.

So far, no takers.

Not that the platoons of rats that have infested the south tower of the old Hillsborough County Courthouse annex building aren't eating well. No leftover lunch nor office birthday cake is safe. Rats have raided candy dishes and left Reeses wrappers two offices down. They've chewed through phone wires and computer cables. And they've left behind disgusting circumstantial evidence.

"It's like a fraternity party in here when we're gone," Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi told me.

And even when they're not.

Ober's secretary was working one weekend when she watched one, then two, then three, disappear into Ober's office. In the homicide division, an investigator counted six at once. Rats have run across desks. They've run passed feet. They've made elaborate nests out of candy wrappers and yellow stickies.

Some of the old buildings in downtown Tampa have had rats for years, but usually a few traps and glue strips take care of them. Not this bunch. Don Harwig, director of facilities management for the county, says it's the worst infestation the county has had in any building.

Plus, they're sassy.

"They're bold enough that they're actually running in the offices," he said.

The problem, now stretching into months, has some of the 250 employees who work there debating the best bait - peanut butter? chicken bones? - and half-joking about hiring a few good housecats.

This week, a company is scheduled to try something new to rid the court building of rats. Rats crawl through tubes installed in the ceilings and get a substance on their bodies, which they ingest as they groom themselves. The stuff makes them seek water and fresh air, and they go outside to die, Harwig says.

"They say within two weeks, there should be a significant reduction," he said.

Early reports blamed nearby construction for bringing in rats. Harwig mentioned the city using smoke to test the sewer systems.

These, by the way, are thought to be "roof" rats rather than their larger cousins, the "wharf" rats. That's good, I guess, but a rat's still a rat.

This could be kind of funny, fodder for jokes about jailhouse snitches and smelling a rat, if it didn't have some serious fallout, like health concerns.

A pregnant prosecutor was recently moved to another building at her request, and who could blame her? Another employee filed a worker's compensation claim after a rat startled her while she was sitting at her desk. She jumped up, tripped over a box and banged her arm badly.

Rats 2, Humans 0.

A more sober sighting at the courthouse last week: Adam "Rattlesnake" Davis, on death row for the murder of his teenage girlfriend's mother, Vicki Robinson. Mrs. Robinson was stabbed to death in her Carrollwood home in 1998.

Davis, now 27, is back in Tampa for post-conviction hearings, standard in cases like his even though the Florida Supreme Court already affirmed his death sentence. He sat in a near-empty courtroom last week dressed injailhouse orange, taking notes.

Valessa Robinson, now 22, was sentenced to 20 years for her role in her mother's death and is doing her time in a women's prison in Quincy. She isn't scheduled to be freed until she is at least 33 years old.

As for Davis, his prison visitor log lists "wife - Jennifer Chardella-Davis," a 31-year-old woman he married in 2001 in a civil ceremony. One of them has since filed for divorce, though there is no record it was ever completed.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@spttmes.com.

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