Courtroom violence can erupt at any time. So much is at stake, and emotions are at a fever pitch. Sometimes it's the victim's loved ones seeking personal revenge. Other times it's the defendants lashing out at lawyers in their own desperate bid for vengeance. And sitting in the middle of all this mayhem is the man or woman in the black robes.
Small-town judges like Michael Cicconetti of Painesville, Ohio, are not immune to these attacks. Judge Mike, as he is known, is an all-around regular guy. He's a great dad and a good cook who has gone bowling with the same league every Monday night for the past 36 years.
But when Cicconetti goes to work, no one thinks of him as a regular guy. He dons the judge's black robe of authority and has the final word. He is the city's only judge, and he metes out justice with a firm yet compassionate hand.
"You're dealing with people, and you're helping people, as much as you're putting other people in jail," Cicconetti said.
An Elaborate Plot
No one was more shocked than Cicconetti when, last summer, detectives urgently asked him to meet them in a parking lot and pulled out a small audiotape recorder.
"They said, 'I want you to listen to this,'" Cicconetti said. "And I heard someone saying that they wanted to bomb my house they were going to come in and kill me and my family. I go, 'whoa.'"
Police had uncovered an elaborate plot to kill not only Judge Mike, but also the mayor, the local prosecutor and the police chief. The alleged perpetrators? Joseph Sands and Dawn Holin, a couple whom Cicconetti had sentenced to a few days of jail time and a $150 fine for failing to file local taxes on their auto repair shop.
"If you asked me to give a list of 30 or 40 people you think might do something to harm [me], they would not have been on that list," Cicconetti said. "They wouldn't have been close to the top 100 on that list."
Plotting Revenge From Behind Bars
Threats against judges have quadrupled in the last decade. There were more than 800 threats last year against federal judges alone, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. What's going on? The answer just might be found behind bars.
Ronald Dudas is an inmate at the Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He's had revenge on his mind not just once, but twice.
"You come in here, and you're around 15… other inmates [are] all saying the same thing, 'I hate the judge, I can't believe he gave me this, I'd like to see something happen to him, I'd like to break his legs,'" Dudas said.
While in jail, Dudas tried to hire hit men to hurt two different judges and a police officer.
"As an inmate and as a convict and as a convicted felon, we don't want to accept the responsibility most of the times," he said. "We want to pass that off to somebody else."
The Last Stop
Dudas admits that often that "somebody else" is the judge who handed down the sentence, simply because he or she is the last stop on the line before the inmate gets locked up and all power is taken away.
"You get so frustrated that anger just -- it spills out from every pore that you have," Dudas said. "You're consumed by this, this thought of revenge."
Despite the fact that he actually wrote a check for a "down payment" on the $10,000 hit he commissioned against one of the judges, Dudas claims he never intended to carry out his threats. Experts say that's one of the hardest things for law enforcement to determine: When is someone just a big talker and when are they a real threat?
'Howlers Howl and Hunters Hunt'
Security Expert Frederick Calhoun, who worked for the U.S. Marshals, said there's a clear distinction: "Howlers howl and hunters hunt. There are differences in behavior. Hunters engage in attack-related behaviors. Howlers do not. They simply howl. They communicate#0133 these are people who get angry, start communicating with the judiciary, send threats. They try to disturb or frighten the judicial official, but they never go beyond that."
Calhoun, who has studied violence against judges, said that far more dangerous than the howlers are the "hunters" -- such as Joseph Sands, who plotted against Cicconetti.
"He was a hunter," Calhoun said. "He had a grievance. He feared that the judge and the mayor and the chief of police were going to go after him for municipal tax evasion… he researched the targets' homes. He drove by the judge's house. He surveilled it. He found out where the mayor and the police chief lived. All with the idea of collecting information on how best to attack them."
The revenge plot hatched by Dawn Holin and Joseph Sands was not just a daydream -- it was a meticulous plan caught on tape. But in their blind drive for vengeance this not-so-wily couple made a crucial mistake: They enlisted the help of a friend, who then informed police.
For two weeks, police monitored the duo's every move. By day, hidden surveillance cameras caught Sands and the informant on tape as they shopped for bomb components at the hardware store. By night, police listened in as they drove by Cicconetti's home to scout exactly how they would throw the bomb into the house as Cicconetti and his family slept.
In conversations secretly recorded by the informant, Sands dispassionately referred to the judge's children as "casualties of war."
"The kids are gonna die with him," Sands said on tape. "That's called victims of the situation he created. That's called street justice, man…" (Click here to listen to more of the tape).
"The coldness of that is still, to this day is what stays with me," Cicconetti said. "Had this plan unfolded in the way that they intended it to be unfolded, then you would have had a whole family of deceased people, myself and my wife and my two boys."
'There's a Little Bit of Fear Back There'
Sands and Holin were nabbed moments after they purchased the last element to complete the bomb: the fuse. They were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 20 and 10 years respectively. They are currently facing related weapons charges in a federal trial.
As for Cicconetti, he admits he has lost some of the small-town innocence he once treasured.
"No question, it took a part of that away from me," he said. "Do I still do the things that I used to do? Yeah. Socially, do I still bowl with the guys that I bowled with for 36 years on Monday night? Yes, I still do Is there something more back there now? Um, yeah, there's a little bit of fear back there. I may be less than truthful if I didn't admit that to you."