ELY — White Pine County’s courthouse is a cozy place, especially in winter. Carpeted stairs lead to an upper floor that overlooks a snowy lawn, a public library and a middle school. On the wall are Christmas stockings embroidered with children’s names.
That serenity can quickly change, however.
An inmate from Ely State Prison who stabbed his cellmate more than 100 times with a makeshift knife walks out of a metal cage and across a hallway into a courtroom to be sentenced for the murder. The prisoner shows no emotion as a judge gives him two life terms. The teardrop tattoos under his eyes don’t count.
The federal government has a clear point of view about the court facilities in the 101-year-old building: Shut them down before somebody gets hurt.
Citing major and unfixable security gaps, a U.S. Department of Justice report says the Ely courthouse should no longer be used for criminal or civil cases.
“Not only is the site location unacceptable, but the facility will never meet minimum security standards based upon design and infrastructure issues,” Vincent Freiburger of the U.S. Marshals Service wrote in the scathing 22-page report, completed in October.
Freiburger’s report continued: “My sincere professional recommendation is to find an alternative location.”
The federal study of the courthouse was requested by White Pine County District Judge Dan Papez. It confirms the findings of a 2003 report by the Nevada Supreme Court’s Commission on Rural Courts.
In his State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice William Maupin called the Ely courthouse “one of the most dangerous locations” in Nevada. But the courthouse will remain open, unless White Pine County comes up with an estimated $15 million for a new facility or state lawmakers help.
White Pine County is still reeling from a steep decline in its mining-based economy in the late 1990s. The current population is estimated at less than 10,000. The county has recently been in receivership. Officials say they can offer land, but not much money, for the courthouse project.
For years, Ely’s elite, with the backing of some of Nevada’s most prominent and fiscally conservative leaders, have pleaded for state assistance. But a group of mainly Clark County legislators has consistently quashed the idea of state funding for the project.
It is highly unusual for a local government to ask the state Legislature to pay for a county building, but White Pine County officials insist they have unique needs that justify the request.
About eight miles outside of downtown Ely is a foreboding complex of buildings that comprise Ely State Prison, which opened in 1989. It is the only maximum-security facility in Nevada.
In the past year, at least 15 cases in the Ely courthouse’s District Court have involved defendants accused of violent crimes while in prison. Another handful of inmates have appeared in connection with lawsuits against the prison.
For several reasons — some practical, some constitutional — most hearings in those cases have to take place in the county courthouse, not in a makeshift prison courtroom used for other matters.
Inmate cases in White Pine County represent only about 3 percent of all District Court cases in a given year, but each poses major security challenges, District Judge Dan Papez said.
“A violent incident could occur on any one of those cases at any time,” Papez said. “It wouldn’t take much for a horrible tragedy to occur.
“We believe we’re providing a very good service to the whole state with the prison. That’s how we’ve made our pitch for funding.”
A major security concern is the ease with which someone on the District Court witness stand can make physical contact with a judge or jurors. To provide a degree of protection, some prisoners wear stun belts that can be remotely activated in an emergency.
But inmate defendants and inmate witnesses must be unshackled when testifying.
When prisoners come to the courthouse for hearings, they arrive at a poorly secured entrance, the Marshal Service’s report said. They are escorted to one of two metal cages on the same elevator used by judges and other courthouse workers.
The cages and the courtroom are about 30 feet apart. Between them is a single bathroom used by prisoners and everyone else in the building, including six armed officers present during inmate hearings.
The first floor of the courthouse houses other county offices, including the county clerk and treasurer’s offices. In all, about 30 people work in the building.
In the past, Papez said, rival gang members have tussled in the holding cell area.
The report also points to other security problems at the building: Justice Court proceedings are held in a cramped basement with no emergency exit for the judge. Electrical and plumbing lines are exposed throughout the building.
The courthouse is flanked by a public library, a school, and homes.
“Should a serious security breach occur, the close proximity could endanger residents and many of the middle school children in the immediate area,” the report said.
For safety reasons, the state Supreme Court recently allowed Papez and fellow District Court Judge Steve Dobrescu to move two murder cases from White Pine County to Carson City. The state had to pay the cost of those cases, one of which resulted in a four-week trial.
Security issues at the Ely courthouse have caught the attention of Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has urged the Legislature to fund a new courthouse.
“It’s one of the governor’s priorities,” Gibbons spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said. “He’ll continue to fight for it.”
But after two near misses at the Legislature in 2005 and earlier this year, Papez isn’t sure he has much fight left in him.
“I don’t know if we’ll try again at the Legislature,” he said. “But we’ll do what we need to protect our people, even if that means moving cases to Las Vegas.”
Many Ely officials hold a handful of Clark County lawmakers responsible for their current predicament.
In 2005, the state Senate approved legislation providing nearly $11 million to White Pine County for a new courthouse. The bill never came to a vote in the Assembly.
Two years later, the price tag for the project jumped to nearly $15 million. The state Senate approved a bill that would have paid for about half the cost, but again, the matter didn’t come up for a vote in the Assembly.
Assembly Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-North Las Vegas, said he has opposed state funding of what should be a county project.
“I sympathize with them, but I can’t go taking taxpayer money to build them a courthouse,” Arberry said. “They want us to bend the rules.”
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, has also resisted the idea of using state money for the Ely project.
Arberry’s advice to White Pine County: Bite the bullet and raise local taxes to pay for a new courthouse.
Arberry said the state has other funding priorities, including education. Papez responds: “What’s more important than public safety?”
The district’s representative in the Assembly sees a possible political motive behind Arberry and other Clark County lawmakers’ opposition to state funding of a new courthouse.
Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, was among the so-called “Mean 15” legislators who in 2003 created acrimony by opposing an $833 million tax increase that was ultimately approved by the Legislature.
“It could be some people are being somewhat punitive against rural Nevada, because I didn’t vote for the tax increase,” Goicoechea said.
Arberry and Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, a former state assemblywoman, said their lack of support for the courthouse bills had nothing to do with politics.
At the end of the last legislative session, some potential relief became available to White Pine County, but not nearly enough to address problems outlined in the federal report.
White Pine County is applying for part of about $6 million in potential savings from recent prison reforms in the state.
Papez said the county would end up with no more than $300,000 for cosmetic repairs to the facility.
For the foreseeable future, the century-old building will remain open for court business.
That’s a shame, said state Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas.
“We built a super maximum prison in Ely, and they are now stuck with a volatile and dangerous situation created by the state,” Beers said. “We have an obligation to set it right.”
Arberry said he still isn’t convinced of the dangers posed by the courthouse.
“If you go into an underprivileged area like the ones I represent, people are killing each other all the time,” he said. “You can’t compare that to a courthouse where no one has even been hurt.”
White Pine County Sheriff Dan Watts said no one can convince him that the inadequate court facilities don’t put the public at risk.
“I hope it doesn’t have to get to the point where someone gets hurt before they realize how big a problem this is,” Watts said.
Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon @reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0404.