It was April 2008 when a 6-foot-4-inch man wielding two large kitchen knives ran into Judge Brian McCabe's Courtroom 2 of the Merced County Superior Court, which was packed full with 150 men, women and children.
The man, later identified as 40-year-old Robert Gerald Eaton of Atwater, had charged through the courthouse's security screening area and down the hall to McCabe's courtroom as bystanders screamed, warning that the man had knives. When he entered Courtroom 2, Eaton moved toward McCabe on the bench after ignoring warnings from the bailiffs to stop, prompting authorities to shoot him several times, killing him.
"It seemed like an eternity, but it wasn't," McCabe said as he recalled the incident Thursday. "It was a very short span."
Nobody else was injured that fateful day in 2008. The only person struck with bullets was Eaton, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and thought to be committing suicide-by-cop.
The 30-second ordeal is a prime example of why the Merced County Superior Court's security screening is essential for safety at the facility.
The yield of Merced County's courthouse security screeners was on display Thursday, as Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman, Sgt. Steve Sziraki and Linda Romero Soles, courthouse CEO, reviewed some of the banned items people have tried to bring into the building over the past two months.
Handcuff keys, knives, an iron and several other prohibited items were among the haul. Though items like handcuff keys are certainly suspicious, there's no law barring people from having them, MacKenzie said. "There's no law against it, but there's no reason for anyone to bring in handcuff keys," he said.
Anyone trying to bring in a more dangerous item, such as a large knife, would be questioned by authorities, MacKenzie said.
Most of the items displayed Thursday were forfeited by people passing through the security screeners, Sziraki said. People have the option of either taking the prohibited items back to their vehicles or surrendering them in a drop-box if they're short on time. "We don't hold any property for anybody," he said. "You can take it back to your car or forfeit it."
Because of the professionalism and experience of the courthouse security officials who work the screening area, hazardous items are consistently caught before they make it in, Sziraki said.
Improved machinery also helps, Soles added. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, X-ray machines were upgraded to recognize plastics. The machines are usually retrofitted every four years as new technology becomes available.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.