Old food, not rodents, is possible odor source

Bad smell permeates parts of city courthouse

April 22, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Turns out that ages-old, greasy potato chip stains and soda spills - not decaying rats - may be the source of a bad smell wafting through Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, public works officials say.

Blaine Lipski, the city's chief of building maintenance, spent hours inhaling deeply inside the building yesterday and reached this conclusion: Dead rodents have much more of a gag-inducing stink than whatever is lurking there.

Some circuit judges and courthouse employees who have been exposed to the rank environment have theorized that rats - perhaps cousins of the ones they spotted scampering through the garage under Courthouse East in the winter - lay decaying in the walls of the 105-year-old Mitchell Courthouse.

Whatever the cause, changes are in the works.

A news release from the state court system went out yesterday: "Mitchell Courthouse Odor Being Investigated." By 10 a.m., Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland had shut down Courtroom 203 "until further notice."

Together with the second-floor section where the grand jury makes decisions about which cases to indict, Courtroom 203 is considered the nucleus of nastiness.

Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, a courthouse historian and retired judge who still hears cases, said several jurors had complained about the rotting-animal-like smell during the first day of a two-defendant murder trial. He apologized to them for the "environmental factors" they had to endure.

"There are to be NO Retired Judges scheduled in that courtroom until authorized by Judge Holland," Holland's administrative assistant wrote in an e-mail message distributed yesterday.

Shortly thereafter, a notice went up on the doors of the courtroom, normally used for dockets such as bail reviews and probation violations, advising readers to head to Courtroom 231. That room is across the building, in a less odorous area.

Jury Commissioner Nancy Dennis happily reported that she'd seen city workers buzzing about the stinky grand jury section.

The courthouse even smelled better yesterday - coconutty, almost, like a newly opened air freshener.

Lipski, the chief of building maintenance, said crews would begin shampooing the carpets and washing down the walls when the court closes this afternoon.

He said workers also would move vending machines and carefully examine and clean the hard-to-access areas of the second floor.

But yesterday they found no signs of rats, dead or alive, or leaky sewage or water pipes, he said. The rats in Courthouse East were cleared out months ago, when the city began collecting trash more frequently.

Lipski characterized the odor emanating from Courtroom 203 and the grand jury section and wafting down adjoining hallways as a musty or "bad perfume" smell.

"It doesn't cause a gag reflex the way dead rats do," he said.

Department of Public Works officials surmised that the dingy old carpet near the grand jury vending machines could be to blame. Kurt L. Kocher, the department spokesman, said spillage from drinks and crumbs from snacks can evolve into a stench if left uncleaned for a long time.

And there's one other theory - the joke of the day circulating among courthouse employees: "Perhaps it's the lawyers that we smell."

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