On the fourth floor of the Burlington County Courthouse, a crush of TV crews waited for Johnny Bobbitt Jr., a once homeless vet charged with fabricating a story that went viral on the GoFundMe website during the holidays last year.
Bobbitt and his coconspirators, Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico, raised nearly $403,000 with a fake story about how Bobbitt helped McClure when she ran out of gas in Philadelphia and how they, in turn, wanted to raise money to help find him housing, prosecutors say.
But the courthouse in Mount Holly isn’t just the epicenter of this high-profile criminal case where the first hearings were held this month. The seven-story brick building has some wild scenes of its own, starting with a curious flock of vultures that circle above.
Turkey and black vultures, with wingspans reaching five feet, soar above the courthouse almost daily.
Then there’s the bomb-sniffing chocolate Lab that lives in a space behind a plastic baby gate in the courthouse lobby. Tail wagging, the dog happily accepts pats from court visitors when he’s not busy checking out suspicious packages.
There’s plenty to notice here, besides the characters summoned to appear before the judges.
From the top floor, visitors can see the Philadelphia skyline, more than 20 miles away. But at ground level, as visitors are poised to enter the courthouse, they may be surprised by what flies into view.
Vultures. The same birds Alfred Hitchcock used as a handy image to evoke a chill.
As many as 30 of the menacing birds sat together along the edge of the orange flat roof last week, their hunched silhouettes resembling gargoyles. One spread its enormous wings and sat frozen in that position, letting the sun dry them out.
Five years ago, Mount Holly residents called federal wildlife officials to report that their neighborhood was being invaded by dozens of vultures roosting in their trees, creating a nuisance and piles of messy droppings.
Nicole Rein, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommended hanging a carcass of a vulture, upside down with wings spread, from a tree and it quickly warded them off. “It makes the other vultures uncomfortable to see that," she said in a recent interview.
But the vultures seem to like the Mount Holly area.
Rein has seen the vultures gathering at the courthouse and said they likely chose it because it’s the tallest building around. They “like to find a place where they can have a 360-degree view," she said.
Vultures' eyesight is poor and they scan the area to look for other birds swooping toward a food source that they might want for themselves, she said.
Typically, the vultures would not roost, or sleep overnight, on the roof, so they pose less of a problem at the courthouse than they did for the residents, Rein said.
Donna Mazzanti, a court spokesperson with an office on the seventh floor, often sees the vultures from her windows and loves watching them soar.
“They’re huge, and majestic. ... Honestly, it makes you jump when they fly right for you. They come within a foot of the windows, but they don’t fly into it,” she said.
Sometimes the vultures sit atop each of the four spires at the St. Andrews Episcopal Church a block away and create quite a sight, she said.
Most courthouse visitors interviewed recently said they too were not bothered by the birds. Never mind their Hollywood reputation as flesh-eating scavengers and as omens of misfortune.
Oddly, to enter the courthouse, visitors must first pass by two 5-foot-tall painted sculptures of bald eagles that stand up against the door. Eagles are the only predators of vultures in this area, Rein said.
Visitors must first be screened by security in the county administration building and choose an exit — elevator, escalator, or stairway — to get into the adjacent courthouse. It’s a labyrinth and people often approach the Information Desk in the courthouse lobby to ask for help.
Detective Christopher Snyder, who works for the county sheriff, sits behind that desk. He fields questions, handles court security, and tends to Scottie, his K-9. The rescue dog, who is presumed to be 8 and has a few gray hairs on his chin and a badge under his neck, is a beloved courthouse fixture.
His crate sits behind the Information Desk and is corralled by a 2-foot-tall baby gate that gives him a 12-by-15-foot area to roam about and to chew on his stuffed hedgehog, George, when he’s not taking breaks or working. Sometimes he and Snyder play fetch outside the courthouse, beneath the soaring vultures.
Snyder became Scottie’s master when the dog’s previous owner, a warrant officer, left the department four years ago. Since Snyder’s post is at the courthouse, he brings Scottie with him for convenience.
Jill Gianetti, another sheriff’s officer, brings Niko, her German shepherd, to work with her each day at the nearby historic Old County Courthouse. The explosive-sniffing dog performs sweeps of the buildings before court begins each day.
Sheriff Jean Stanfield said the courthouse K9s are “good for public relations and for safety."
So, visitors to Burlington County’s courthouse can catch an interesting trial, go to the seventh floor to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the area, or come to check out the vultures. Or just come to say hi to Scottie.