TIPPECANOE COUNTY, Ind. (WLFI) - Lafayette was the site of a domestic terrorism attack 15 years ago Friday. Aug. 2, 1998 came almost exactly halfway between two other notable incidents. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was still fresh on everyone's minds. September 11th would come 37 months later.
Compared to 2013, the curthouse looked the same in 1998, at least from the outside. But soon after someone drove a truck loaded with an improvised explosive device through the 4th Street entrance Aug. 2, things changed.
The fire caused more than $217,000 worth of damage.
There's no remnant of what happened in 1998 near the magistrate's courtroom.
But elsewhere, signs of tightened security are clearly evident. Hundreds of members of the public come through a single door, go through a metal detector, monitored all the while by security cameras.
"In the aftermath of 9/11, other communities started looking at security differently. We were just about three years ahead of what happened at our courthouse," says Sheriff Tracy Brown.
In December 1998, an anonymous donor paid $15,000 to install pillars to serve as vehicle barriers at the 4th and Columbia Street entrances.
The county commissioners spent more than $200,000 in the first part of 1999 on extra security, including hiring more officers, buying two portable metal detectors and installing more than 100 panic alarms.
It's tough to imagine now, but even after the attempted bombing, other security measures weren't popular. Most notably was closing seven public entrances at the courthouse so everyone would come through a single door.
"This courthouse is a treasure. It should be an asset to the community and not locked down," attorney Kent Moore told News 18 at the time.
"I think it's the people's building and it should be open," agreed Ed Boes.
"It just makes it harder for people to get access to get inside," said Roy Davis.
Four years earlier, in 1994, Circuit Judge Ronald Melichar had U.S. Marshals assess courthouse security. Locking all but one entrance was one of the recommendations, a suggestion echoed by a security committee formed after the '98 bomb attempt.
Two year later, on Aug. 30, 2000, three months after another bomb threat was called in, Melichar issued a judicial mandate requiring all doors except one to be locked.
"It's right in my head and it's right in my heart. And the latter is more important. So I'm determined to see this through," Judge Melichar told News 18 at the time.
But those who opposed the mandate were just as determined. With a unanimous vote by 20 members of the bar association and several other judges on their side, county leaders fought back with a lawsuit.
"Really it bothers me to have a mandate of this nature," County Commissioner John Knochel told News 18 at the time.
"I'm very disappointed in one person telling the whole community of how to run a community building," added Commissioner Ruth Shedd.
Exactly one year after the mandate was issued, on Aug. 30, 2001, just 11 days before the 9/11 attacks, a special judge ruled in Melichar's favor and forced the county to pay legal fees for both sides, totaling almost $300,000. In other words, almost $100,000 more than the damage done in '98.
"I look back now and it doesn't bother me. At the time it did, because you got those beautiful wooden doors that are sealed shut, never used," says Knochel.
Within a year after the '98 incident, security staff more than doubled, from three up to seven. Sheriff Brown says it even rose to 13 because of increased needs. But now, with extra cameras and technology, staff is back down to eight.
As for the single public entrance and the mandatory metal detector, visitors don't seem to find today.
"Oh i think it's for the best probably," says Knochel.
But that's not all that's changed.
Thanks to the war on terror and incidents like the Boston Marathon tragedy, there's a lot more eyes and ears attentive to the unusual. More than anything else, that could be what keeps an incident like Aug. 2, 1998 from ever happening again.
"The mindset of citizens today completely different than what it was in 1998. People are watching out for one another. People report suspicious activity," says Sheriff Brown.
Former Judge Ronald Melichar declined to be interviewed for this story
Again, if you any information about the attempted courthouse bombing 15 years ago, you are urged to call the Sheriff's Office or the anonymous We-Tip Hotline at 1-800-78-CRIME.
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