Peculiar proceedings

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Courthouse spector
News-Sentinel photo by Brian Tombaugh

Courthouse spector
Gayle Ort, court administrator and director of court services for Allen Circuit Court, points to the walkway above the third floor of the Allen County Courthouse. People have reported seeing a ghost walking there at night.
From the outside, the Allen County Courthouse is a pretty serious-looking place. But life inside doesn't always reflect that. Over the century it's been in use, the courthouse has seen its share of grim moments, such as grisly murder trials, families torn apart in divorce proceedings, and even children getting an unwanted, firsthand look at the juvenile justice system. There have been other moments, though, that have prompted reactions ranging from a raised eyebrow to an outright guffaw. Consider, for example, the contention that the building is haunted by a ghost no one knows.

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Phantom of the courthouse

"Yeah, it's haunted," Circuit Court Administrator Gayle Ort says of the building. "I've talked to seven or eight people who claim they've seen it. It's always late at night, and it's always on the catwalk on the east side of the fourth floor."

Ort admits he's tried to spot the ghost a few times, most frequently when he's been in the building in the wee hours waiting for a jury to return a verdict. "I've never seen it," he said. "It's supposed to be a man with long hair and dark clothes. Nobody's ever seen it long enough to tell how old it is or get a good description, but they claim they've definitely seen it."

Does Ort believe there's actually a representative of the spirit world wandering around the building? "The people who told me about it didn't have any reason to lie," he said. "On the other hand, I haven't gone around yelling 'Here, ghost, here, ghost,' either."

Home sweet home

For a while several years ago, courthouse workers might have thought the ghost to which Ort referred wasn't the only one in the building.

Employees of some offices were puzzled when they began noticing some items they'd left on their desk overnight had vanished when they reported for work the next morning. Often, it was candy or another food item that was gone, and some workers thought members of the building's custodial staff might be helping themselves to the goodies when no one was around.

It turned out the janitors were innocent, though. One day, some unusual noises were heard coming from the building's fourth floor, which had been unoccupied and unused for several years. When some third-floor workers went upstairs to take a look, they flushed out a homeless person who'd apparently been living there for some time, feeding himself on the pickings he found on various desks.

Some days it's a zoo

Ghosts and down-on-their-luck humans aren't the only unusual denizens of the courthouse. It's seen more than its share of animals, too.

A Sheriff's Department captain once came to work to find a pony tethered to his desk. It seems three of his cohorts -- the sheriff at the time included -- had each ponied up $10 to buy the animal with the intention of using it to welcome the captain to another day at the office. His reaction, according to one of those involved, isn't fit material for a family newspaper.

Another sheriff's deputy came to work around Thanksgiving to find someone had locked a live turkey in his office. He didn't find any dressing, mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce with the bird, but he did find plenty of something else -- let's just say the turkey really had the trots.

And then there was the Superior Court judge who left his window open a few inches when he left the office for the weekend. When he came back Monday, he had visitors. Plenty of visitors, in the form of pigeons that got in through the open window. And like the turkey, they, too, had paid their respects.

Ready for anything

Another Superior Court judge would have never had such a pigeon problem. He packed a gun under his robes when he was on the bench, and when he wasn't wearing the weapon, he usually had it within arm's reach.

He said, she said

Superior Judge Nancy Boyer has never been known to carry heat, but she has presided over one of the building's more unusual trials.

The case involved a man who'd been sued in Small Claims Court over a fence he'd put up. By the time the case finally came to trial, the man had undergone a sex-change operation and was a woman. "She claimed she couldn't be sued because she wasn't the same person," Boyer said.

Cover-up ordered

Then there was W.O. Hughes, who served as judge in Allen Circuit Court in the 1960s and was clearly someone who prized modesty.

Shortly after he took office, Hughes was sitting on the bench one day when he noticed the mural at the rear of his courtroom featured a bare-chested woman. Friends say he put up with the scene for a while, but finally had enough and ordered a drape painted over the woman's bosom.

That might seem well and good, if not for the fact while Hughes was ordering the woman clothed, another mural hung in the building's rotunda featuring the likeness of a naked man in all his full-frontal glory. It's said that mural is still the reason some guides leading tours of younger children through the building won't take them to the west side of the third floor -- look up from there, and you'll get an eyeful.

Celebrating the holidays

Real life in the building occasionally got every bit as spicy as the murals, too.

For years, lawyers, judges and courthouse workers would hold a Christmas party just before the holidays, closing off a courtroom and shutting down early while they took part in a little holiday cheer. And yes, they were known to take a nip. Or two.

At one of the events, a male attorney and a female courthouse employee apparently tossed back a few too many, and decided to do a bit more than exchange a kiss under the mistletoe. They were found atop a desk, "unwrapping each other instead of their presents," as one witness put it. In the end, they proved to be the Grinch for the rest of the revelers -- because of their activities, that was the last of the courtroom Christmas parties.

Eye in the sky

Years ago, the courthouse basement was also used as a trysting spot of sorts.

Back then, there were two public restrooms in the basement. Both were accessible through steps that led up to the sidewalk on the Main Street side of the building.

When local attorney Walter Helmke was prosecutor, then-Sheriff Custer Dunifon told him one day he was concerned about men using the bathroom to have sex. Dunifon wanted to put up cameras to catch them in the act.

"I said 'absolutely not,' but he went to county council and got the money anyway," Helmke recalled. "A while later, he came to my office with a bunch of pictures. They couldn't be used as evidence. We couldn't file charges based on them. I told him to take them out and burn them, and to get those cameras out of there."

Dunifon obliged the prosecutor, but not before he got the final word. Rebuffed by Helmke, the sheriff approached the county commissioners, and persuaded them to bulldoze shut the outside stairways and doors that led to the restrooms.

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