- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Prince George's County (Md.) State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson is tired of talking about snakes, even though a 24-inch-long poisonous one was found right outside his third-floor courthouse office suite last week.
Nobody knows how the snake, which is indigenous to Maryland, found it's way there. Authorities are trying to solve the mystery. This week, the Prince George's County Sheriff's office will contact reptile experts and track down courthouse employees who may help them solve the puzzle.
A courthouse employee found the snake between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. lying in the public corridor next to a door that leads to a suite of offices including that of Mr. Johnson.
No one was injured.
"We're hoping that the experts can determine for us the likelihood and probability that this particular snake made its own way to where it was found," county sheriff's department spokesman Sgt. William Ament said yesterday.
Sgt. Ament said the sheriff's department has already begun interviewing some of "a fairly large group" of courthouse employees who may have seen the snake before it was found or who may have had access to the courthouse before it opened that day.
"If we find that it couldn't have made its way there on its own, then we'll look at what possibilities exist for someone to place it there," Sgt. Ament said.
Sheriff's deputies tried to capture the copperhead by holding it down with the blade of a shovel laid across the animal's scaly back. But the shovel, instead, decapitated the reptile, Sgt. Ament said.
"It was apparently too heavy and we wound up with a dead snake."
Mr. Johnson, who was not amused by the incident, declined to comment yesterday.
"It's obviously an attempt to intimidate me," he told a Washington Post columnist in an interview after the snake discovery last week. But the elected Democratic prosecutor stopped short of placing blame during the interview.
Mr. Johnson's recent outspoken comments about the aggressive use of force by police officers have put him at odds with members of the county police department. County police have been involved in 12 shootings in the last 13 months, the latest on Sept. 8 when undercover narcotics detective Carlton Jones shot and killed Howard University student Prince C. Jones Jr. in Fairfax County, Va. An investigation into that case is ongoing.
Earlier this month, Mr. Johnson announced the indictment of Officer Brian C. Catlett on charges of voluntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment in the death of Gary Hopkins. The 19-year-old was shot Nov. 27, 1999, following a dance at the West Lanham Hills fire station.
Last week, Police Chief John S. Farrell asked Mr. Johnson to present to a grand jury new DNA evidence the department received from the FBI crime lab. When he announced the indictment, Mr. Johnson said several witnesses gave information that conflicted with police testimony.
Yesterday, he released a brief statement saying: "We will no longer be commenting on the snake issue. We're referring all questions to the county sheriff's office because they are now conducting an investigation."
Sgt. Ament said the sheriff's department has already begun interviewing some of "a fairly large group" of courthouse employees who may have seen the snake before it was found or who may have had access to the courthouse before it opened that day.
Sgt. Ament also said his office is trying to determine how long the snake was in the courthouse before it was discovered. "It may have been there longer than we know," he said.
Private security guards, bailiffs and uniformed sheriff's deputies are constantly on the watch for weapons and other potential threats to the judges, lawyers, witnesses and defendants who use the building, Sgt. Ament said.
"The safety of the some 3,000 people who use this courthouse every day is of utmost importance," he said.
Copperheads are commonly found in wooded or swampy areas, around or under logs and wood piles, near flat stones and streams. They also can be found in back yards, under ground litter. Its venom has a low toxicity and no recent fatalities have occurred.
"We are certainly making a sincere effort of trying to keep poisonous snakes out of the courthouse," Sgt. Ament said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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