By JOSH NEWTON
Investigators with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies questioned several “suspects” Wednesday afternoon when a bomb threat was made to the Cherokee County Courthouse, but no arrests were made.
More than 200 people were evacuated from the courthouse Wednesday morning just before 9 when the threat was called in. Within a few hours, investigators had cleared the building and said they found no threat. The courthouse reopened at 1 p.m.
The caller phoned the Cherokee County Clerk’s Office, on the second floor of the courthouse, and spoke to Deputy Clerk Laura Hendricks. The county clerk’s office frequently receives calls meant for the court clerk’s office, which is on the third floor and handles many court-related matters. Police initially believed the suspect might have intended to call the court clerk’s office, but instead called the county clerk.
Hendricks fielded the call, and the man told her he was “tired of paying my f---ing fines,” then claimed there was a bomb in the courthouse.
“We had just started working when we received the phone call,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks notified a safety manager about the threat, and a “panic button” in the courthouse was pushed to alert other offices in the three-story building. Personnel with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Tahlequah Police Department, District 27 District Attorney’s Office, Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Tahlequah Fire Department responded and evacuated the building.
Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management Director Gary Dotson and Tahlequah Police Department Public Information Officer Brad Robertson both said it appeared the evacuation process was smooth, even with the large number of people who were inside the courthouse. Closure of the building disrupted scheduled court proceedings and other matters.
The First United Methodist Church facility, across from the courthouse, opened its doors to provide heat to those who were evacuated.
Investigators began looking through the facility and contacted the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Bomb Squad, which was dispatched immediately from Tulsa and helped conduct a secondary search inside and outside of the building when they arrived.
At about 11 a.m., authorities announced they had not found a bomb.
The fire department left the scene shortly after the announcement, and roads around the facility – which had been closed since about 9 a.m. – were reopened.
Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault said three suspects were detained Wednesday afternoon and were interviewed about the incident, but all were eventually released from custody.
Authorities were also trying to trace the phone call that was used in making the threat.
“We don’t think there’s anything here to be alarmed by,” said Chennault. “More than likely, it was just someone disgruntled with the court system, and they thought they could get away with doing this and get out of the court case.”
Chennault said it will be up to the District Attorney’s Office what charges the culprits could face, but making terroristic threats could be one charge.
Authorities said the investigation is ongoing, and they hope the person responsible for making the threat is ultimately dealt with “harshly.”