Shortly before noon on May 5, as they did every Thursday, deputies Kathleen Mottl, Dawn Amoroso, and Michelle Bonan collected dozens of items from three of the courthouse's so-called "amnesty" boxes.
The boxes are prominently placed near the courthouse's airport-style security checkpoints. They allow defendants, jurors, lawyers, and court watchers to drop off anonymously things that could be considered weapons before walking through metal detectors. You can never get your item back, but you won't get in trouble for walking into a courtroom with something that might be illegal.
The deputies picked up the usual arsenal of cutters, small knives, pepper sprays, and shanks and carried it to a first-floor room known as "the containment room."
"We placed all the items on the table," Amoroso, 45, wrote in her report. "As we were separating the items to conduct a logged inventory, Deputy Bonan picked up an unknown beige plastic box which had yellow buttons and unknown black writing and said: 'I don't know what this is, but I've never seen this before.' "
Amoroso took the item from 42-year-old Bonan and set it down. When she did, she heard a pop. Immediately, a brown substance left the box and hit the wall. Instantly, the deputies' eyes watered, throats swelled, and lungs burned.
May 5 was just four days after Navy SEALs executed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The federal government had warned that terrorists might strike in retaliation. And it wasn't unreasonable that it would happen in Palm Beach County, considering that anthrax had shown up in the Boca Raton offices after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
With the federal warnings fresh on their minds, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputies called in their supervisors. The brass ordered the area around the containment room sealed. They shut down elevators and evacuated the first two floors of the building while ordering people on the upper floors to stay put.
As the pungent, acrid stench made the deputies sneeze, wheeze, and cough, a hazmat team from West Palm Beach Fire Rescue scrambled to the courthouse.
Within minutes, a command center was set up on the shutdown Quadrille Boulevard, a busy street in the back of the building fronted by North Dixie Highway. A half dozen space-suit-clad fire-rescue personnel were soon ready for action.
Investigators learned that the strange device was far from a terrorist weapon. It was a damaged Kimber LifeAct Guardian Angel, a high-performance pepper spray outfitted with two small CO2 cartridges allowing for a pair of blasts up to 13 feet away.
Still, rescuers decided to decontaminate the three deputies, whose uniforms and bodies were stained by the brown liquid.
That's where Amoroso's report ends.
What wasn't in the report, according to three witnesses: How the women were treated when they were walked to the decontamination area and told to get naked and scrubbed down with a Tide solution. From inside a silver space suit, a firefighter hummed Randy Newman's strip-club classic "You Can Leave Your Hat On."
"You guys get ready for deputies gone wild!" said another rescuer.
Then the icing, or lack therefore, on this cake of humiliation: Amoroso, Bonan, and Mottl were ordered to disrobe in a makeshift decontamination area with no roof. It stood smack-dab in the middle of downtown West Palm Beach at the foot of the ten-floor courthouse. Folks who gathered at the upper-floor windows to watch the always-spectacular, fancy-equipment-driven hazmat effort had a clear view of the disrobing deputies.
The women asked to be shielded from view. They were told: "No can do, ladies! We don't have a cover." Or a blanket. Or anything enough to hide them from view.
That day, Assistant Chief Kevin Green said West Palm Fire Rescue's personnel failed to bring the decontamination tent to the scene. So they improvised. Three fire trucks were parked in a tight near-square formation, with a tarp covering the fourth side.
"In hindsight, we should have had the tent," Green says now. "But we did the best we could with what we had to work with. The deputies were treated with the utmost respect."
Mottl, 35, especially pleaded with their by-the-book PBSO supervisors for them to get involved and protect their privacy. The women were told to follow instructions. By the book. Roof or no roof.
So they did.
"I never felt more humiliated," one of the three deputies said, asking that she not be quoted by name for fear of retaliation from the agency. "First, we had to listen to these jerks say offensive things to us. But here we were, standing in downtown West Palm Beach with all these eyes looking at us from the upper floors of the courthouse. There were people at the parking garage. It was like being violated."
Two of the three deputies declined to talk about the incident. And none of the three complained officially at PBSO, although Mottl is shopping for a labor attorney for possible legal action.