A Santa Ana courtroom was thrown into turmoil Thursday when two undercover narcotics investigators, wearing old clothes and sporting long hair, aimed guns at a defendant and ordered everyone to "hit the ground."
The spectacle led to near-panic among the nearly 40 people in the courtroom, who had no idea that the men were police officers, and caused at least two unsuspecting deputy marshals to draw their own guns.
"It was the scariest thing I've ever seen in a courtroom," said attorney Joanne Harrold, who had been standing next to the defendant. "We didn't know they were the police; we thought someone was going to be killed."
The two undercover sheriff's officers later explained that they had come to the courtroom to arrest John Peace, 40, of Anaheim, because he had been released on bail by mistake last week. The officers, Henry Duchene and Raul Ramos, told their superiors that they had drawn their guns because they believed Peace had spotted them and was trying to flee. Peace had threatened to kill them a week earlier, according to a probation report, and was known to carry a gun in the back of his shirt.
Attorney Donald Woods was loudly applauded when he stated to the court later that in 18 years as a lawyer, Thursday's incident in Orange County Superior Court was "the most outrageous thing I have ever seen."
Several people at the scene said later that the undercover officers had ordered Peace to lie in front of the judge's bench and had yelled obscenities at him.
"The problem was that they never identified themselves as police officers," said attorney Joel W. Baruch. "They just came in like Rambo."
Adding to the hysteria, one man in the back of the courtroom yelled, "Get the judge! Get the judge!" He meant that someone should tell Judge Myron S. Brown, who was in his chambers, about what was happening.
"But when you're sucking carpet and you hear 'Get the judge!' all you can think is that someone is here to kidnap or hurt the judge," Baruch said.
One Weeps, One Jokes
Attorney Ronald G. Brower said that afterward one woman cried uncontrollably. And a courtroom clerk said: "We learned real quick that you can get two people under my desk."
Several witnesses said later that they thought someone could have been hurt.
"If any police officers had walked in on that scene, they would have immediately drawn guns and started shooting," Baruch said.
Presiding Judge Phillip E. Cox, who investigated the incident, cleared the undercover officers of any wrongdoing. Cox, who interviewed Duchene and Ramos, said he was convinced that they were forced to draw their guns because Peace recognized them and had started to flee.
Peace had been convicted in October on drug charges and placed on probation. He was arrested again in December and charged with drug possession and violating probation.
Released on Bail
He was released on $100,000 bail. But he was arrested again on Feb. 22 after he allegedly threatened to kill Duchene and Ramos.
Judge Brown released him the next day, Cox said, apparently unaware that Judge David O. Carter had ordered him held without bail.
On Monday, Carter reaffirmed his order and directed Duchene and Ramos to find Peace. On Thursday, they learned that he was in Brown's courtroom for arraignment.
Under normal procedures, Cox said, officers who want to arrest a courtroom defendant would inform the bailiff, then wait at the door for the person to be turned over to them.
According to Cox, the undercover officers were explaining their purpose to the bailiff in the back of the courtroom when Peace spotted them and started to bolt from the room.
"It was an unfortunate incident, but I believe under the circumstances the officers acted properly," Cox said.
Sheriff's Capt. Tim Simon, the undercover officers' supervisor, said it was only after Peace's attorney began to protest the arrest warrant that the trouble began.
"Peace turns around and is hearing this, sees them and bolts," Simon said. He said that Peace shouted, " 'I'm not going to jail' " then ran to an area off limits to all but attorneys and court personnel.
There would have been no ruckus, Simon added, "if he had gone peacefully. He created the situation."
But Larry Young, Peace's attorney, did not agree with that version. Young said his client was sitting quietly waiting for his case to be called, and did not get up until he saw the officers coming toward him with their guns drawn.
Attorney Harrold, who was next to Peace, said that she thought Peace had merely sat there.
"The officer put a black gun right up to his neck; I could not believe the total control this officer showed," Harrold said.
Attorney Brower said his "first thought was that they were trying to free a prisoner. They were shouting and everybody in the courtroom was down on the floor."
Brower said he turned and reported the scene to the courtroom bailiff, who had been in the outer hallway. A witness said the bailiff entered the courtroom with his own gun drawn.
A second nearby bailiff heard a woman yell about guns and then saw someone running toward him. He drew his gun on the man and ordered him to spread out on the floor.
The man turned out to be another defendant who had run out of the courtroom at the sight of the armed officers.
Harrold said that "when the reality of what happened hits you, you realize how very little security there really is in our courtrooms. Anyone with a gun can walk in and do anything."
Times staff writer Nancy Wride contributed to this story.