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Officials reassess courthouse security

Armed Merced County Sheriff's deputies stood guard at the courthouse's main entrance Tuesday in the wake of the recent shooting death of a man who carried knives inside a courtroom.

"We want (the public) to know it's business as usual, and we'll do everything to ensure their safety," sheriff's spokesman Tom MacKenzie said.

The deputies will remain there for at least the next few days, though no decision has been made about keeping them there full time. The armed deputies watched as four security officers, carrying Tasers, monitored the people entering the courthouse.

On Monday afternoon, 40-year-old Atwater resident Robert Gerald Eaton, clutching two knives, got past the security officers, bolted down a hallway and entered a crowded courtroom. He appeared to be heading for Judge Brian McCabe, who had sentenced him for past crimes.

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There, amid the chaos, an unidentified sheriff's deputy shot and killed Eaton, who had a history of mental health issues.

Presiding Judge John Kirihara, who helps oversee the courthouse, said he's not sure if having armed guards at the front entrance would have prevented the shooting. It may have just occurred before Eaton reached the courtroom, he said.

"He seemed to be absolutely bent on doing what he did," Kirihara said. "He didn't seem to have any regard for his own life."

Moving armed guards to the entrance is one option that may be mulled to increase security, though it'd likely result in fewer deputies being inside the courtrooms because of budget constraints.

The shooting showed the local judges that they can be the focal point of people's anger, though Kirihara believes it's an isolated incident.

"Sometimes we're unfortunately reminded that it's a role we're involved in," Kirihara noted. "We would just prefer to be anonymous."

McCabe returned to work, though his courtroom was closed as workers replaced the carpet and door, which was hit by a bullet. He heard his slate of cases upstairs in Courtroom 5. He declined to comment on the shooting.

Repairs have finished and the courtroom will be open today.

In response to the shooting, Merced County Superior Court plans to have a judicial security adviser review the checkpoints at its complex.

A state expert will visit the courthouse to determine what, if anything, the administration can do to prevent another person from entering with a weapon. The review may begin as soon as Thursday.

"We want a thorough analysis, and we don't want to rush it," said Court Executive Officer Kathleen Goetsch.

Adding armed guards to the main entrance has been an issue in the past, and it may be included in this year's budget request that's sent to state court administrators. With the state's budget deficit, money will be tight, she acknowledged.

The atmosphere at the complex was subdued. Some employees described the prior day's events as surreal with people running up and down the hallway screaming.

Employees who saw the shooting were offered counseling, and one person took the day off, Goetsch said. "This is a very unfortunate incident," she said. "We are all still dealing with that."

Goetsch said the court administration has always wanted more security, though they've always met with resistance in Sacramento.

With the new courthouse, the security budget has grown by 47 percent in the past two years to $2.4 million. Armed deputies have been stationed in each of the complex's 10 courtrooms, but not at the main entrance.

Three sworn deputies were assigned to the courtroom where Eaton was shot because it's where criminal cases with in-custody defendants are held and is the most dangerous. One deputy is present during civil hearings, Goetsch said.

Every day, 1,200 to 1,800 pass through the security gates at the N Street courthouse, which opened in 2007.

Goetsch said that Merced County's courtrooms are much safer than when the portable buildings were used frequently and didn't have screening stations. The court still uses one portable for video arraignments, and there was an armed deputy watching the proceedings.

Reporter Scott Jason

can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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