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Ayden courthouse closed indefinitely following attack on sheriff's deputy

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A security guard waits to wand people as they come through the front doors of the Pitt County Courthouse on Thursday. People entering the county courthouse must pass through metal detectors and other security measures, but that has not been the case at the Ayden Courthouse.

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By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector
and Amber Revels-Stocks
The Times-Leader

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Ayden courthouse is closed indefinitely following a February knife attack that injured a deputy from the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office.

Earlier in the week, Ayden town officials asked that court hearings return to the town, prompting a detailed explanation of the incident.  

District Court Judge Daniel Hines Entzminger said a defendant named Urece Nyete Monei Dewitt, 27, became upset after he asked her to sit down.  

“She was upset, and she decided to leave the courtroom before her case had been resolved,” Entzminger said. “I asked her to stay in the courtroom; she exited, and then the bailiff went out into the hallway to speak with her about it.”

It was in the hallway where things began to escalate.  

The bailiff, Pitt County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Cox, approached Dewitt. An argument ensued, and Dewitt began pulling away from Cox.  

According to Grifton Police Officer D. Dennis, who was also at the courthouse, as Dewitt was being confronted by Cox, Dewitt’s boyfriend, 28-year-old Ra’Shawn Grant, began cursing at Cox and “causing a scene.”  

Dennis said he was in the courtroom and that he and a Pitt Community College Police officer heard the commotion and went to assist Cox.  

“We walked outside and ended up getting involved, and (Cox) got the man in handcuffs, and the Pitt Community College officer was able to get the woman restrained,”  Dennis said. 

Grant was taken into a private office to be searched. While Cox was attempting to take Grant’s keys away, he was stabbed in the hand.    

Dennis said that Grant’s knife was attached to a D-shaped key ring, but he is unsure how Grant managed to use the knife while handcuffed.  

Cox was transported to Vidant Medical Center with minor injuries and later was released.  

The disruption, which happened around 10:30 a.m., delayed court by about 10 minutes.   

Entzminger said that after the incident, Dewitt was apologetic.  

“She apologized, and she recognized that her behavior was not appropriate for court,” Entzminger said.

Dewitt was charged with assault on a government official and resisting a public officer. She also was held in contempt of court and received 20 days in jail. Grant was charged with assault with a deadly weapon on a government official and misdemeanor assault on a government official.   

Entzminger praised the swift actions by law enforcement to restore order in the courtroom.  

“I think law enforcement did an excellent job diffusing the situation and that officers from Grifton and Pitt Community College moved very quickly to make sure that the incident wasn’t any worse than it was,” he said.    

Following the incident, Chief District Court Judge Galen Braddy discontinued court sessions in Ayden. Braddy said on Tuesday that the cases pending in Ayden have been moved to Farmville for the time being.

On Feb. 25, Braddy sent out a memo detailing the Feb. 14 incident, which “raised a substantial question as to the safety of future proceedings” in both Ayden and Farmville.

According to the memo, “No metal detectors are in use, and there is no handicapped access to any second floor courtroom in Ayden. Both of these issues create potential serious legal and financial issues with their continued operations. At a minimum, there must be substantial upgrades to these sites to protect courthouse personnel and the public.”

Braddy scheduled an emergency meeting on March 4 to discuss safety issues. He sent two more memos, both dated March 8, after the meeting.

One memo stated that Braddy was temporarily suspending the court in Ayden until “appropriate measures for security can be provided.”

The other memo stated that court would continue at the Farmville satellite through June 2019, based on assurances by Chief Donnie Greene of the Farmville Police Department.

“I am waiting for a decision from Superior Court Clerk Sara Beth Fulford Rhodes and District Attorney Faris Dixon as to how to advise the Ayden, Grifton, Highway Patrol, Sheriff’s Department and Pitt Community College officers to set court dates in the future,” Braddy wrote in the memo. “One suggestion is to have a Farmville session of court every week and allow chiefs and sergeants spread them over weekly court settings in Farmville.”

Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance said that the sheriff’s office has been providing security for all of the courthouses in Pitt County and that the public can be assured that it will continue to keep local courts safe.

“We have done this for ages,” Dance said. “We provide security for the courthouse or courtrooms when court is going on. We will continue to provide that service when court is going on. We want to make sure it’s as safe as possible.”

County Manager D. Scott Elliott and Pitt County Sheriff Chief Deputy Randy Gentry intend to perform safety assessments on both satellite courts.

Gentry said the assessments will take place on May 1 and will be done free of charge by the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. 

“They’ll send an assessor down May 1, and they’ll be here for two days to assess the Ayden location, the Farmville location and the location where they have small claims court here in Greenville,” Gentry said. “What they’re looking for is the layout of the facilities, what security improvements and recommendations they can find to report back to us. That report will be given back to Judge Braddy.”

Ayden Mayor Steve Tripp hopes the assessment will result in court returning to Ayden. 

“I appreciate that security is a concern (here) .... but we should have a mitigation plan to help secure this facility to have court here because it does affect economic development in our town,” he said on Monday. “(The town) doesn’t make hardly any money here for court. But I know that’s a big day for some of our merchants, especially our restaurant owners. 

“We just need to have communication with the judge and the court systems to see what can we do to accommodate (safety) here,” Tripp said.

Braddy said that while he understands the frustration of not holding court sessions in Ayden, safety comes first.  

“Public safety and the integrity of the courtroom proceedings is paramount,” Braddy said.  “And we need to make sure that whatever venue court’s being conducted in is safe and people don’t have to fear going in the courthouse when they have a matter before the court. 

“It’s a very difficult decision,” he said. “I’ve been going to Ayden court since I started practicing law in 1992. And I’ve been on the bench since 2000.”

Braddy said that on the day of the attack, his staff feared for their personal safety.  

“My clerk was terrified. The probation officer was terrified. The magistrates were terrified. Because that whole courtroom could have went into pandemonium,” Braddy said.  

More concerning to Braddy was the fact that a knife was allowed into a courtroom.  

“Ayden did not have the space or the ability to man a metal detector to screen everybody that came in to make sure people didn’t get a knife in or a gun,” he said. “If that had been a gun — there’s no back way exit out of there except to run to the magistrate’s office and go downstairs.”

Braddy said he considered Grant’s attack on the law enforcement officer brazen.    

“This person attacked a bailiff,” he said. “What would it have been on the street? He didn’t attack another defendant or another victim or witness in the courtroom; he attacked the law enforcement officer. He was trying to do harm to Deputy Cox.

“I can’t put the public at risk of being exposed to some danger in the courtroom.”

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566. The Times-Leader serves southern Pitt County including the towns of Ayden, Grifiton and Winterville.

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