Official: Court break-in may have been prank

The men were captured on surveillance camera running through the hallways of the courthouse

October 19, 2011 8:11:35 PM PDT
Five foreign nationals with French visas broke into a San Antonio courthouse early Wednesday, authorities said, setting off a heavy police response with bomb-sniffing dogs and FBI agents. Hours later, officials said the young men turned out to be harmless bar hoppers looking for kicks.

Courthouse surveillance photos released by police show two men donning sombreros while running down a hallway around 1:30 a.m. A beer bottle was left in one courtroom, Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz said, and the suspects playfully swung around a judge's gavel before getting caught.

"Evidently, they had been drinking prior to coming up here," Ortiz said. "It's very likely these individuals were just intoxicated."

All the men are in their 20s and are expected to be charged with burglary. Although their visas listed French addresses, authorities said they were not sure of their original nationalities. Ortiz said the men appeared to pose no security threat.

The levity with which police described the drunken caper at an afternoon news conference differed sharply from the intensity and suspicion that surrounded the courthouse earlier in the day. Police closed downtown streets and tactical units combed the building for explosives.

Authorities also searched the nearby convention center where dozens of top U.S. intelligence officials were attending a conference, including Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Ortiz defended the aggressive police response to five foreign suspects seen breaking into a government building, and acknowledged local kids pulling the same prank wouldn't have brought out the same swarm of law enforcement.

"Because they are foreign nationals, and because of everything that has happened in the United States recently, we can't take anything like this as a prank," Ortiz said. "We have to do our due diligence."

Also raising initial suspicion was the rented RV the men had been using to travel across the country. Some of the group arrived in New York and had driven down to Florida to pick up the others, Ortiz said. Authorities were waiting on a search warrant Wednesday afternoon to thoroughly search the RV, though investigators said they already had found the visas, maps, cell phones and computers.

Ortiz said two of the men broke into the courthouse through a fire escape and set off an alarm immediately. They were arrested shortly after and appeared to cause no damage. Ortiz said they spoke little English but were being cooperative with investigators through the help of a translator.

"They were clowning around in the courtroom. They put on Mexican hats, they grabbed the gavel," Ortiz said. "That gave us an indication they weren't up to anything other than a prank."

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