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Published: Friday, 8/14/2009

Courthouse security boss calls it a career

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mark Lair, right, handled security for high-profile trials such as Tom Noe's, center, who is with his lawyer Jon Richardson in 2006. Mark Lair, right, handled security for high-profile trials such as Tom Noe's, center, who is with his lawyer Jon Richardson in 2006.
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When Mark Lair became the third member on the team charged with securing the Lucas County Courthouse, there were no metal detectors to pass through, no monitored entrances, and no staff of security officers monitoring each courtroom.

That was 24 years ago.

Now, protected by its own staff and guarded by metal detectors and cameras, the courthouse that houses the Common Pleas Court's general division and Probate Court has been a model for other state courts throughout Ohio on how to secure a building where thousands of criminal cases are heard every year.

He won't take credit for it. But others say Mr. Lair, 51, who retires today after 30 years in law enforcement, championed much of the change.

"He had done it successfully here. He was very successful in initiating [more heightened security] that he was called on by a lot of courts to share our policies and procedures," said Jean Atkin, the court administrator who worked alongside Mr. Lair throughout his tenure. "He not only made a difference to us but actually helped change the way things were done elsewhere."

Hired in 1986, Mr. Lair had six years of law enforcement experience as a state officer working in Lucas County's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities system, recently renamed the Board of Developmental Disabilities. Two years later, he was named director of court security.

It was a challenging job, he admitted recently, especially during high-profile and emotionally charged trials. And it was a job that necessitated changing the way things were done along the way.

During the trial of Jeffrey McDermott, who pleaded guilty in 1993 to the murder of a local fence company owner, Mr. Lair learned a gun had been brought into the building. Soon after, he initiated a plan to create a more secure courthouse. "I had gone to the judges a few times with proposals and looked around nationally at what some of the bigger cities were doing," he said. "I knew guns were coming into this building. We then started screening people coming in."

In June, 1994, court staff closed the grand entrances on Jackson and Adams streets and installed metal detectors at the doors on Michigan and Erie streets.

Other security changes that have gone into effect under Mr. Lair's leadership include updating cameras throughout the building, banning cell phones because of the recording capabilities, rebuilding the tunnel between the courthouse and the jail, and installing an elevator solely for the transport of inmates.

He also learned how to handle the intense spotlight that comes with national media coverage of high-profile trials such as those of Tom Noe, convicted of stealing millions of dollars from coin funds he created and managed for a state agency, and Gerald Robinson, a Catholic priest convicted of killing a nun.

Prosecutor Julia Bates said that much of Mr. Lair's success can be found in the improvements that most people wouldn't notice, such as seating inmates in the jury box during regular appearances and removing glass tops from each courtroom table.

But what is measurable, she added, is the lack of security problems that have occurred during his lengthy career.

In addition to 11 courtrooms, the building is home to the prosecutor's criminal division, clerk of courts office, and civil mediation offices, and plays host to thousands of couples each year who get married there.

"Here, we've taken an old building and still managed to make it safe in today's world," she said, adding that Mr. Lair is to be credited for hiring a staff that is "competent and personable."

"Mark has been very diligent in taking care of all of us," Ms. Bates said.

Mr. Lair managed a staff of 22 officers and five civilian employees working in the courthouse, probation department, electronic monitoring, and pretrial services.

Unlike most state courts where the sheriff is in charge of security, the Lucas County courthouse security staff is employed by the judges. Only the Ohio Supreme Court has a similar model, Ms. Atkin said.

Judge Ruth Ann Franks said that as head of security in the courthouse, Mr. Lair has become an extension of the court, a position to which he has dedicated himself fully.

Calling him "the kind of man that never looks at his watch," the longtime judge said Mr. Lair has created not only a safe environment, but one "where justice prevails and should."

"In a professional capacity, there was no one respected more. Personally, I have trusted my life to him and I would again," she said.

Mr. Lair, a father of two and grandfather of two, said he hopes after retirement to do law enforcement and criminal-justice instructing.

He also intends to continue playing drums in his classic rock band, Flashback.

But even on his last days, it is not his accomplishments but those of others that he touts. Praising the investigative skills of the Toledo Police Department that led to thousands of fascinating trials during his career, Mr. Lair said the job has been stressful, but he's always enjoyed the challenge.

"The people," he said of what he will most miss. "Everybody, actually."

A permanent replacement for Mr. Lair has not been named.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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