Article published March 8, 1999
Security guards find surprises during routine checks
More than just loose change in the pockets of manyBy TOM LANGHORNE, Staff Writer
They want you to empty your pockets into a dog dish. They want to look through your pocketbook and scan your body with a metal detector. Most of them do it with a friendly smile and, sometimes, an apology for the invasion of privacy, but each of the Spartanburg County Courthouse's security guards knows why he or she is there.
"When I explain that I'm checking them over to keep weapons out of the courthouse so everyone can be safe, most people don't gripe too much," guard Leonard "Red" Mathis said. "I mean, it's the law."
Mathis and the other security guards subject each person who enters the courthouse to a metal detector search for knives, guns, mace, pepper spray, long fingernail files -- any kind of sharp object.
They may be looking for deadly weapons, but sometimes the security guards make other kinds of discoveries with their walk-through metal detectors and hand-held scanners.
Roger D. McCullough, Spartanburg County's superintendent of building maintenance, said one young man once included a bag of marijuana among the items he emptied into a security guard's dog dish. "He was arrested," McCullough said, laughing. "They didn't ask him to take it back to his car."
Mathis said he was puzzled recently to hear his scanner go off in front of a young woman's stomach. "She jerked up her shirt and showed me where her belly button had been pierced," he said. "And then the very same thing happened again later that week with another girl."
Security guard Henry White said a 5-year-old boy once set off his metal detector. "It was one of the buttons on his overalls," White chuckled. "He was scared; he wanted to know if I was going to throw him in jail."
Knives -- long, short, serrated, double-edged and in varying degrees of sharpness -- seem to be the weapon of choice for those who try to enter the courthouse armed. Mathis said he sees three or four a day. "I tell them to take the knives back out to their car, and sometimes they hide it under the trash cans outside or in the bushes," he said. "Most understand why you're doing it." But not everyone gives up his blade cheerfully.
White said one young man was so angered at having to leave his knife behind that he took it out on a trash can. "This fellow had this big, expensive-looking multiple knife that was a knife, a screwdriver, a wrench, a pair of pliers, all at one time, you know?" White said. "He didn't really say anything when I asked him to leave it behind." Instead, the man calmly stepped outside the courthouse to a trash can, did his best Nolan Ryan wind-up and hurled his "knife" into the can as hard as he could. "When he came back through to leave the courthouse, I asked him if he'd be picking his knife out of the trash can," White said. "He just kept walking. He never did get it back."
White said one elderly man walked out in a huff when he wasn't allowed to bring his knife into the courthouse. "This guy was about 85 years old, and he had a 10-inch-long knife just sticking out of his pocket," White recalled. "He put up a fuss, then he left, and he didn't come back. Don't know what he was here for, but he didn't get it done."
Security officer James Berry let one woman leave her knife in his desk drawer as he was talking. "At least here I know it's not going past me, or anywhere unsafe," Berry said. "
People gripe about what we do because they consider it harassment, but we're trying to protect them."
The courthouse security guards occupy four door stations at any one time. They are employees of Inman-based Carolina Security Services, which contracts with Spartanburg County for the protection.
Paula Wayne, interim county administrator, said the guards and metal detectors were put in place after the completion of a major renovation to the courthouse in late 1993. "It wasn't because of any incident or anything," Wayne said. "It was done for better safety and protection, basically."
Wayne said the county is paying about $85,000 for the security this year.
As far as Mathis is concerned, the county is getting it's money's worth. "I love this job, personally," he said. "You sure do get to meet all different kinds of people."