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Firefighters salvage justice, history at recent blazes

The courtroom words were spoken in the Lancaster City Council chambers, a place that has the look and feel of a dentist's office.

A place without history, lacking in aura, all plastic.

The words came from Kevin Brackett, the prosecutor whose grandfather was a cop walking Rock Hill's Main Street beat for decades so long ago, when the only courthouses were iconic structures that screamed without words, "You are someplace special."

The words were about the August 2008 fire at the historic Lancaster County Courthouse, set by a violent teenager in the throes a crime wave that had people buying guns and pepper spray, instead of milk and bread, until he was caught.

The fire ruined the roof and interior of that courthouse, built in 1828.

It had withstood balls of turpentine thrown onto the roof by Sherman's troops at the end of the Civil War, but it could not survive the torching of lighter fluid-soaked murder indictments on an historic judicial bench on which hundreds of judges had sat.

The teenager hoped to avoid a trial for being an armed thief by burning the joint down. He failed on both counts.

The 18-year-old started a 35-year jail sentence Friday after pleading guilty to armed mayhem. But the courthouse was three blocks away, and silent. A victim unable to move over and be seen, or testify.

So Brackett had to speak for that building where wrongs were righted for so long, and the victims of crimes who had been helped there.

"This place is not just a building," Brackett said of the courthouse, which is being repaired but can never be replaced. There are no 1828-era craftsmen anymore.

The words on Friday did not echo like those of the late Lancaster Solicitor John Justice, whose roared and boomed in that old courthouse courtroom for three decades until 2006. Justice sent rapists and dope dealers away for decades as the victims sat next to him, shivering with fright.

"The courthouse stands for more," Brackett said. "For 175 years, this courthouse has stood as a refuge for justice. Disputes were handled in a peaceful, orderly manner."

And violent killers were sent away forever.

I will never forget the hot June day in 2003 when a crying woman named Rita Steele told a jury how she and her husband had been kidnapped in 2000 by a drug gang seeking to steal video poker profits from a safe.

The words echoed off the ornate woodwork and vaulted ceilings as she spoke of being bound with duct tape and blindfolded and hearing her husband say, "I love you," as he lay dying from a gunshot wound. Jurors wept.

"He held a gun to my head and said, 'His wife's gonna die,'" Rita Steele said of the killer that day in court, and anybody who ever saw or heard it will never forget that courthouse.

That whole crowd of criminals who shot and sold dope got a thousand years in prison. An assistant prosecutor named Doug Barfield, who helped put away the killer, was right there holding Rita Steele's hand when the verdict came in. John Justice was on the other side holding her other hand. The words "guilty" from that jury foreman sounded like cannon fire.

That was what the historic Lancaster County Courthouse was like when the good guys won.

More flames in Rock Hill

The words that came Friday were not unlike those spoken four days earlier in a similarly antiseptic Moss Justice Center in York.

That modern courthouse -- the historic York County Courthouse courtroom that oozes history and justice is no longer used for criminal cases and mainly sits idle except for civil matters -- has the charm of a liquor store.

Like the Lancaster temporary courtroom used Friday, the Moss courtrooms seem to lack only cigarettes and a cash register and a yellow awning to make one think the courtrooms are almost bodegas on a Bronx street corner.

In that Moss Center courtroom, the second of two young men pleaded guilty to trying to burn down the shell of the Bleachery, the old Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. plant, in July.

That plant was historic itself before textiles died, when thousands worked there in a place that was once the largest employer in York County.

Like so many victims sought justice in the Lancaster courthouse, so many workers sought a better life in the Bleachery until it closed in 1998. Thousands of mortgages paid from those huge dye vats, kids raised and sent to college from the unending toil of hard work and cotton dust and lungs seared by chemicals.

The two teens tried twice in early July to burn the place down before it could be razed by a wrecking ball. They stole history and memories and giggled as they watched news coverage of the first fire on computers at the public library before deciding to go back and try to finish the job.

As they set the second fire, more than two dozen Rock Hill firefighters with families at home were on the roof fighting the still-burning first fire.

One of those firefighters told me afterward that he sent his wife a text message on his cell phone that he loved her, but he didn't know if he was ever going to come out of that burning Bleachery alive.

Doug Barfield told me that he was never scared to go to work after the courthouse fire and the fire at his office in Lancaster, but "families take it a lot harder, more personal.

"Families in this business, they take stuff hard. I was never scared to go to work. Families, they worry about what could happen."

No Rock Hill firefighters, with the exception of investigator Rusty Myers, spoke at the court pleadings of those young men when each went to prison for the Bleachery fires.

No wives spoke about husbands who could have died if the roof caved in.

Rock Hill Fire Chief Mike Blackmon this week declined to allow his firefighters to speak to The Herald about what could have happened in that historic mill, so their words could not echo like Rita Steele's words in that Lancaster County Courthouse years ago.

"They can't fixate on what could have happened; they have to be prepared for the next call," Blackmon said. "That is what we do. We don't worry about courts. Our job is protecting people."

Cops protect people, too. They rush in, like firemen, as the bullets fly or the fire rages. And that is exactly what prosecutors do later, too.

'They were on our side'

The current 6th Circuit solicitor for Lancaster and Chester counties is that same Doug Barfield who held Rita Steele's hand. He took over when his mentor, John Justice, died. Then Barfield won election on his own.

He did not prosecute the courthouse arson case because he was a victim himself.

The arsonist tried to burn down the courthouse, bent on keeping a trial at bay. But he failed, and court went on in the little city office that smelled of plastic.

So the arsonist came back three nights later and smashed Barfield's office door across the street. He then did something more familiar in Baghdad and Kabul: He threw two Molotov cocktails into the office, right where Barfield keeps the pictures of his family.

Barfield came to work that same day in August 2008 and held court in that city room without history, and he refused to yield to violence that takes away history or violence that tries to scare the rest of us into silence.

Barfield is a husband and a father of two grown sons. He spends every day of his working life trying to find a way through the courts to keep dope dealers and vicious villains from maiming somebody else's wife or daughter or son. Nobody in Barfield's office quit after the fires, although many were terrified until the arsonist was caught.

"That was a hairy six, eight weeks," Barfield recalled. "People were concerned, sure they were. Nobody knew who did it, or why. Or who they were after. But the community supported us. People told us they were on our side. That meant a lot."

But Friday in court, before he had to leave, Barfield was just another victim. He left before the guilty plea was entered, and he didn't even get to see the arsonist who tried to destroy history and justice get 35 years. Barfield had committed to be somewhere, and his word was his bond.

"I gotta run for another commitment," Barfield told me. Some of those files Barfield uses for pending cases still smell of smoke from the fires of 2008. Some have burned file folders. Barfield still has no permanent office.

"Work," Barfield said. "The people's work. They expect it."

Barfield slipped out the door, as his counterpart from York County, Kevin Brackett, put the last nail in the arsonist's 35-year sentence. Barfield's exit was silent and unnoticed, except by me. Barfield gave me a look. And faintly, a smile.

Then Barfield was gone.

Work for the ages

On my way back to Rock Hill on Friday, I passed the Lancaster courthouse. A place Barfield, who has worked there for 22 years, said "had the aura, the solemnity of someplace special, where so many of us gave all we had to what we thought was worth it for people."

The old courthouse, with basement walls two and three feet thick, was surrounded by metal fence, and workers were inside and outside trying to restore what the fire took away. It will cost more than $2 million.

More workers were building the new courthouse that in 2011 will open next door to the old courthouse. Bricks from 1828 shone in the sunlight on the old courthouse, maybe the light from victory helped the bricks shine, too. John Justice's gravel voice seemed to come back as the heavy equipment moved the rocks and earth.

In Rock Hill, there is no restoration at the old Bleachery. The wrecking ball starts in a few weeks. There, the work has stopped, and the bricks are dull red and smell of smoke.

Never will a case be tried in that Lancaster courthouse again, nor a yard of fabric dyed in the Rock Hill Bleachery.

But the people who were once there remain, some of them anyway. They worked and laughed. They slapped backs and cried. Those who tried to burn those buildings down can't steal the work that was done or the history that was made.

"That old courthouse, I get a lump in my throat every time I set foot in the place," Barfield said. "It was a place where you just plain tried to do what was right for people."

The firefighters who heroically tried to save the Bleachery and their counterparts in Lancaster who saved what they could of the old courthouse did not fail.

Doug Barfield did not fail.

Those who do what is right for the rest of us to keep us safe -- even if it is dangerous, and spouses cry at home in the doorway as they leave -- never fail.