A Santa Ana courtroom was thrown into turmoil Thursday when two undercover narcotics investigators, wearing old clothes and sporting long hair, drew guns and aimed them at a defendant.
Deputy marshals, not knowing what was going on, arrived and drew their own guns. The spectacle shocked the nearly 40 spectators in the busy Orange County Superior Courtroom, where no one knew the intruders were police officers.
The undercover officers later explained that they had come to arrest John Peace, 40, of Anaheim, because he had been released on bail by mistake last week. They drew their guns, they said, because they believed Peace was armed.
"It was the scariest thing I've ever seen in a courtroom," said attorney Joanne Harrold, who had been standing next to Peace. "The two men with guns were in long hair and street clothes. We didn't know they were the police; we thought someone was going to be killed."
One official present said, "In 25 years in the courtroom, this is the most outrageous thing I have ever seen."
Looking for Suspect
Presiding Superior Court Judge Phillip E. Cox, who investigated the incident, said Sheriff's Department undercover officers identified as H. Duchene and R. Ramos learned that Peace was in the courtroom. The officers had been looking for Peace, charged with narcotics possession and probation violation, since he was released on bail Feb. 23. He was in court for arraignment on the charges.
Peace's release had been a bureaucratic error. A judge earlier had ordered him held without bail, but a second judge set bail at $100,000. The no-bail order should have prevailed.
Under normal procedures, Cox said, officers who want to arrest a courtroom defendant inform the bailiff, then wait to arrest him at the door after his court appearance.
But Cox said he was told that while Duchene and Ramos were trying to explain their purpose to the bailiff in the courtroom, they saw Peace recognize them and make a move to get away.
Cox said that Peace had threatened to kill the two officers earlier and that they had information that he was armed.
Cox, who cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, said, "It was an unfortunate incident, but I believe under the circumstances, the officers acted properly."
Others in the courtroom gave a different version.
Larry Young, Peace's attorney, said his client was sitting quietly waiting for his case to be called and did not get up to leave until he saw the officers coming toward him with their guns drawn.
Harrold said that she stood next to the seated Peace for about 20 minutes and that she did not see him move when the one officer approached.
"The officer put a black gun right up to (Peace's) neck," Harrold said.
Several attorneys complained bitterly that the officers did not identify themselves.
One spectator ran toward the judge's chambers yelling that someone had a gun in the courtroom. Deputy Marshal G.S. Crandall, who had been outside the courtroom, went in with his own gun drawn. Another nearby deputy heard a woman yell about the guns and then saw someone running toward him. He drew his gun on the man and ordered him to spread out on the ground.
The man turned out to be another defendant who had fled the courtroom when he saw the two undercover officers draw their guns.
Later in the day, Cox reaffirmed the no-bail order and postponed arraignment until next month.