On Tuesday morning at the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse, employees paused in the quiet hallways to exchange hugs, condolences and words of encouragement.
Members of the U.S. Marshals Service office and the court security officers were back on duty at the front door. A sheet of plywood covered space where a bullet-pocked window had been the day before.
A stranger viewing the flow of morning foot traffic might easily assume it was just another day at the courthouse. Those who work there felt a pall of grief roll through the nine-story building.
Their friend and colleague, retired Metro sergeant and court security officer Stan Cooper, was dead. A deputy U.S. marshal had been wounded. Their 12-gauge-wielding assailant, Johnny Lee Wicks, was in the morgue following a shootout in which 86 shots were fired.
After nearly three decades on the federal bench, U.S. District Judge Philip Pro has just about seen it all. A river of humanity has flowed through his courtroom.
But Pro was clearly awed by the selfless courage displayed by marshals and court security officers, who repelled Wicks after he opened fire with a pump-action Mossberg. Wicks, a 66-year-old with a lengthy criminal record, was angry his Social Security benefits had been reduced after moving two years ago from Southern California. His federal lawsuit had been dismissed in September. A magistrate judge had handled the case, and Pro had signed the dismissal.
"They’re great fellows," Pro said Tuesday. "It’s so easy not to appreciate how dangerous it can be until something like this happens. I think yesterday, sadly and at great sacrifice, we saw how the security system here at the courthouse worked to prevent someone who was going to do harm from doing more harm. The deputies and court security officers performed valiantly."
Even with a black trench coat concealing the shotgun, Wicks got only a few feet inside the front doors when he met the building’s first line of defense. He surprised the officers with the shotgun but was swiftly met with return fire, including one shot fired by the mortally wounded Cooper.
"They do a really excellent job of protecting the public and the people who work in the building," Pro said.
Pro said he’s not "noticed a discernible increase" in such activity, but nationally the U.S. Department of Justice has found threats and "inappropriate communications" against prosecutors and the judiciary have more than doubled since 2003. In all, 5,744 threats were logged, but the Justice Department inquiry found many more went unreported. The official report cites 14 recommendations to help the Marshals Service improve security.
Authors of anti-government Web sites and anonymous e-mail aren’t shy about comparing members of Southern Nevada’s federal judiciary and law enforcement to Hitler’s SS troops. In recent years, followers of criminal cases involving self-styled anti-tax protesters and members of white supremacy groups have made threats.
But, as Pro observed, nothing stops a person from making a threat, and, as in the case with Monday’s shooting, it’s often a person not on law enforcement’s radar who uses violence.
"People have been pretty much people," the judge said. "Unfortunately, sometimes there are people who are unstable and will act on things. It’s hard to prevent someone from walking up and opening fire. It’s hard to guard against that. How do you protect yourself against that?"
The answer is painful, but clear: Only through the efforts of a group of brave professionals on the front lines. A man like Stan Cooper, for instance.
Pausing to reflect on a sad January morning, Pro said, "It develops a human dimension when you lose someone like Stan. That’s when it brings home to everyone how serious it can be."
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.