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Wrong building evacuated in bomb scare

Washington County’s response to a bomb scare the day before the presidential election pointed to potential gaps in the safety system and raised the question of which building should be referred to as “the courthouse.”
Capt. Larry Denny, of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said 9-1-1 dispatchers received a call the morning of Nov. 5 from a cell phone in Jonesborough. The cell phone service provider confirmed it was made from a prepaid phone that could not be traced.
According to Denny, the caller said she heard the occupant in the stall next to her say a bomb had been placed in the women’s restroom beside the voting office in the courthouse.
Officers responded to the George P. Jaynes Justice Center and began evacuation procedures.
By noon, streets around the courthouse in downtown Jonesborough were closed, but no one was asked to leave the building. “Evacuation would have been protocol if we had not decided it wasn’t a valid threat,” Denny said.
All of the restrooms in both buildings were searched, with no discovery of any devices.
Denny said a search revealed no indications of tampering on the walls or immediate signs of disturbances inside the downtown courthouse, which are easier to immediately spot in an older building.
By this time, other details of the call were being questioned as suspect. “She said ‘voting office’ rather than election commission which is the common term here,” Denny said.
Also, the caller’s phone had been turned off, making follow-up contact impossible.
“If you’re a good citizen, why would you turn your phone off?” he noted.
Denny said the WCSO was told by Emergency Management Agency officials that other cities had received similar calls prior to the election.
No one was hurt, but members of the Public Safety Committee heard from more than one office holder regarding the incident during their Nov. 13 meeting.
Sheriff Ed Graybeal said a dispatch problem resulted in responders going to the Justice Center first, and he has had more than one conversation with those responsible.
Graybeal also suggested a firm designation of the county’s courthouse would avoid confusion in the future.
“This is an office building now,” he said, referring to the historic structure on Main Street. “When people think of the courthouse, they think of the Justice Center.”
Register of Deeds Ginger Jilton, who attended the meeting with representatives from her office, was unhappy with the lack of information provided to county employees during the event.
Jilton said she was contacted by a colleague who was unable to return to the building because the streets were blocked off. “She told them she worked in that building, but they wouldn’t let her back in or tell her what was going on,” she said.
Calls to the mayor’s office and a conversation with County Trustee Jack Daniels indicated they had no information either.
“We could see them stopping people from coming in, but we were in the dark,” Jilton said. “I can’t understand why they didn’t tell us.”
Repeated questions regarding whether everyone should leave the building were posed by Jilton to officers conducting the search, but they went unanswered.
Finally, employees were told, “It’s over. It was a bomb scare.”
Jilton said the news was hard to believe.
“Why in the world would they not evacuate us?” she asked, adding members of the public were in the deed room at the time conducting title searches.
Despite no formal order, Jilton said she would have taken action had she known what was going on at the time.
“We would have evacuated,” she said. “We would have gone back and gotten the public out and left the building.”
Jilton said her presence at the meeting was to indicate to the lack of a crisis communications system and hopefully prevent the same thing from happening again.
County Attorney John Rambo said the development of a full-fledged safety program is one of his priorities.
Public Safety Committee Chair Roger Nave suggested department heads and representatives from law enforcement and emergency rescue organizations meet together to provide input for consideration during the January meeting.
Jilton said she was pleased with the response from the committee.
“We weren’t there to blame anybody. We just don’t want it to happen again,” she said.