TUPELO – Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers, you just don’t traipse into the Lee County Justice Center any more.
Deputies Seth Thomas and Randy Huckaby are there to make sure the public and the people who work there stay safe, not necessarily from terrorists, but from each other.
“This is an emotional place,” said their boss, Sheriff Jim Johnson.
That’s true. Inside the multi-story concrete facility, you can get married, committed, divorced, charged criminally, have your kids taken away or face youth court.
“Before these new days of security, we even had a judge shot at in the parking lot,” Johnson recalled.
Heated emotions aren’t just in the past. Thomas said just two weeks ago, they had someone come out of a court proceeding, get into a physical confrontation and require their response to control the situation.
“He just didn’t want to go to jail,” Thomas said.
Huckaby, 43, comes from a Verona police background and said that after Johnson was elected sheriff, he knew he wanted to work for him.
“I grew up in a law enforcement family,” he said, referring to his father, Buddy Huckaby, who was a chief deputy in Pontotoc County years ago. “I always thought it was an interesting career.”
He got his training at the North Mississippi Law Enforcement Training Academy.
His sidekick, 25-year-old Thomas, majored in criminology at Morehead State University. “I’ve always wanted to be a deputy,” he said, although he got his work start with Lowe’s in Kentucky, then was transferred to Tupelo.
Before his Justice Center assignment, he worked 13 months in the Lee County Jail.
“I learned a lot there,” Thomas noted.
They’re both family men. Huckaby and his wife Jessica, who live in the Furrs community, have three children ranging in age from 12 to 22. Thomas and his wife, Lindsay, who live in Baldwyn, are expecting a son, Austin Clay, due on Feb. 18.
The sheriff recalls how security was dramatically beefed up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. “Homeland Security (Department) started funneling a lot of money into security of government buildings,” Johnson said.
By 2004, the local crew was fully staffed by deputies and scanning equipment. Improvements have been made along the way with training and technology, Johnson said.
The deputies are on duty for as long as the downtown Tupelo facility is open Monday through Friday. And they screen a lot of people, who want to come inside.
Before they gain entrance beyond the foyer, these people must empty their pockets, put their carry-in possessions through a computer scanner and walk through a metal detector without setting off its alarm.
Sometimes they don’t want to submit to the screening and get angry, Thomas said. “It’s not personal, we’re just doing our job.”
The scans pick up commonplace and unusual objects. The men have confiscated knives, handguns, brass knuckles and drugs.
“People actually have come through here with loose prescription drugs in their pockets,” Thomas noted.
Huckaby said one of the most unusual objects to appear on the scanner involved a prop requested by a physician set to testify in a medical malpractice lawsuit.
“I looked and I looked at it,” Huckaby recalled, “and I said, Ma’am, do you have a skull?”
The flustered office worker quickly told him it wasn’t real and was for a case upstairs.
When they’re not working, the men have divergent interests.
Thomas lifts weights and likes to hunt deer and turkey, especially with a bow. “It’s more of a challenge,” he said.
His partner is more of a homebody, who finds yard work a good stress-reliever. “I also like hanging out with my little girl,” he said about the 12-year-old.
The men agree they feel a lot of responsibility about the people who come and go at the facility.
“We have a lot of people here,” Huckaby said, “and they have a right to be safe and feel safe.”
Do they have any advice for people planning to enter the Lee County Justice Center?
Huckaby suggests that the less someone brings into the building, the better.
Remember, everybody must be screened, Thomas advises. “You don’t need to bring the whole family.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal