Divorce cases and wayward weapons provide the drama. Court marshals are just trying to keep the peace.
During the first wave of the morning rush at the Boone County Courthouse, the metal detector beeped frantically as a man walked through it. He checked his pockets as the uniformed court marshal calmly used the hand wand to ensure that the man’s brown, steel-plated boots were the only source of the metal detector’s agitation.
Frequently, a gun or a set of brass knuckles is the culprit.
Once, Fred Baer, who has worked at the courthouse since 1989, found brass knuckles in a woman’s purse.
“She tried to blame her little girl on putting them in there,” he said. “She said she found them out playing and put them in her purse. A lot of people come in here don’t tell the truth.”
But there is one common denominator: “When people come here, they don’t want to be here, so we treat them the best we can to make it easier for them,” said Les Werner, the chief court marshal of the 13th Judicial District.
He’s one of 10 court marshals who try to keep calm and order in the courthouse.
“The court marshal’s office is like the police department of the courthouse,” said Werner, 44, who was a police officer in Centralia for 12 years.
With the addition of a fourth circuit judge and an associate judge this year, there are now more judges than court marshals. The search is on for a new employee to alleviate the understaffing problem.
While most court marshals were once police officers and must have the same certification as police officers, the job is usually fairly predictable. But it can be a challenge when dealing with flaring tempers.
Baer, 59, has seen his share of hairy situations— like the time a man came into the courthouse five minutes before it closed saying he needed to talk to a judge about recalling four or five felony warrants for his arrest. The man wouldn’t leave when Baer refused to let him speak to the judge.
“This guy was in a wheelchair and we literally had to fight him all the way down to the holding cell,” Baer said. “We finally got him down there, but he was one of the strongest guys we ever had to fight. It took four of us to get him down there.”
Counter to expectation, it’s not the big headline trials such as murder cases that create the most drama in the courtroom: It’s the divorces and cases that involve possessions.
“You get some real doozies in divorce court,” Baer said. “Like who is messing with who and who is cheating on who. I can’t really mention any names or nothing, but I say that divorce court is a lot of the time the most entertaining of all the courts.”
Court marshal Misty McKee, 31, doesn’t find it quite so diverting.
“When you come to divorce there is so much anger involved that they just fight over the silliest things,” she said. “I had a case one time where they literally had everything settled except for the fact that they were arguing over who was going to get the Christmas ornaments. That’s what it came down to. That’s how petty people can get in divorces.”
Money seems to bring out the worst in people in court, based on what the marshals see.
“Small claims courts can get rowdy,” Baer said. “When you talk about, you owe me money or how I owe you money, people can get really agitated.”
But for McKee, a mother of an 8-year-old, the work has the appeal of being safer than most law enforcement jobs. She graduated from the Missouri State Sheriff’s Association Academy, but didn’t like the idea of working as a patrol officer because it’s unpredictable. She worked at the Boone County Jail for three years and has been a court marshal for the past six.
“In the morning when I come in, I pretty much know that I’ll go home,” McKee said.
“Working the road, you don’t really know that.”
Of the 10 court marshals in the Boone County Courthouse, McKee is the only woman. She said people sometimes don’t take her seriously because of that. But most of the difficulty comes from her job and not her gender.
“A lot of people don’t have respect for law enforcement,” she said. “They aren’t afraid to speak their mind about how they feel about you, or your work or your line of duty.”
For their part, the court marshals are a little less opinionated.
“We don’t care if you are guilty or innocent,” Baer said. “We have to be a neutral entity between the defense and the prosecutor.”