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10 YEARS AGO: Officials: upgrades extend beyond secure buildings

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 10, 2006 by The Union.

Change in Nevada County is typically pushed by growth, but the Jan. 10, 2001, shootings have brought about alterations to foothill life, some obvious, some subtle.

Mental health officials say awareness was certainly raised about their cause after the mental condition of the man who pulled the trigger on that tragic day and the quality of the county’s response to his needs became public knowledge in court.

County buildings became more secure, and people said that maybe Grass Valley and Nevada City lost their small-town innocence that day.

“One of the different things is the openness about mental illness now,” said longtime county Behavioral Health Department employee Joan Buffington. “Historically, there was an incredible stigma toward the mentally ill, but after the shootings it was an opportunity for education and outreach for mental health issues. It shocked people into looking at the issue at a community level and a personal level.”

Buffington said her recent work of getting input on the spending of expected new funds from the Prop. 63 Mental Health Services Act drew 1,500 responses from meetings and questionnaires.

“There’s an awareness, and education has shifted attitudes,” Buffington said.

Nevada County’s ability to treat the mentally ill also was subject to change.

“We reorganized adult services so that all (case workers) were aware of all clients,” said Bob Erickson, who became director of the Behavioral Health department two months after the shootings. “The shared caseload helps because things may come out (with more people involved). We also have two full-time psychiatrists now.”

Erickson said the establishment of the mental health patient drop-in service at Spirit Center in Grass Valley is an example of how positive change has come out of the tragedy. He said funding for mental health programs through Prop. 63 should also get patients additional help in the near future.

Physical changes are also apparent within the department.

A guard now stands at the front door, with heavy, thick protective glass in the reception area where Thorpe killed his first two victims, Laura Wilcox and Pearlie Mae Feldman.

“The obvious thing (throughout the county) is the ID cards everybody wears; we use them to get into the buildings, too,” said Nevada County CEO Rick Haffey. “Our buildings have been hardened so that they’re more secure.”

Several other offices are also more secure, said Tom Coburn, the county’s facilities manager.

Guards, protective windows and metal detectors are now in place at the Child Support Services office in Grass Valley and at Adult and Family Services at the Rood Center in Nevada City. The new county building, named after Laura Wilcox, in the Brunswick Basin is similarly protected for clients of Child Protective Services and Children’s Behavioral Health. There are also security devices at the Nevada County Courthouse that were in place or planned before the shootings, including protective windows at the district attorney’s office and the collections office.

The only public entrance to the courthouse is also protected by a large metal detector and two guards. There is also a protective window and a locked entrance room at the sheriff’s office in the Rood Center, and many security devices were built into the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility.

Sheriff Keith Royal said there have been a number of security mechanisms installed by his office but would not publicly discuss them. The department’s special response team, which responded in the Jan. 10, 2001, shootings, also remains available to be mobilized.

All officers receive annual training in the use of force “and how to physically control people you come in contact with,” Royal said. “You try to give your staff a broad understanding of different types of events, but they’re all scenario driven.”

Nevada County will also have a $320,000 mobile communications and operations center in the near future, funded through the Homeland Security department. Royal said the vehicle will allow members of several local emergency agencies to work together in the case of a major incident.

Lyon’s Restaurant in Grass Valley, the other site of Thorpe’s fatal shots — including those that took the life of 24-year-old assistant manager Michael Markle — has a surveillance system in place that allows employees to always know who is coming and going.

Owner Ajey Giles said the staff has also received instruction from local police agencies on how to spot problem people and how to evacuate the restaurant should it become necessary. But, Giles said, those who work at the restaurant and those who frequent it as customers — including members of the victims’ families — are ready to move on.

“The consensus of the employees and our patrons is that it should be let go,” Giles said of the shootings. “It’s time to let it go and not have the wounds reopened every year.”

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