Lorain County probation department is the lone occupant of the crumbling, moldy building

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ELYRIA -- Once upon a time, the Lorain County courthouse in Elyria was dubbed one of the crown jewels of justice in the entire state.

Today, that hall of justice resembles a house of filth.

"The walls are peeling. There's mold growing. How can there not be with all the active leaks in here," chief probation officer Beth Cwalina said.

Her department is the lone occupant of the building after its law enforcement partners left in 2004 to take up space in the seven-story $38 million Justice Center across the street.

"It's been really hard for the last two years. I came from a court that was nice and well run to this place, so it's been difficult, to say the least," she said. "We need to be in the Justice Center with our justice partners and with the judges who we work for."

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Common Pleas Court Judge James Burge is one of those judges. He practiced law for 31 years in the building and is humiliated by the condition.

"The building houses 35 to 40 employees, and it's not fit for human habitation. It's unhealthy and not secure," he said. "There is no city inspection crew that would approve this building for any use. The cost of this building is prohibitive, and for a fraction of the cost we can take advantage of an open space."

Burge gathered local labor leaders and showed them the conditions, vowing to get much needed help for the probation employees.

The Investigator Tom Meyer recently got a behind-the-scenes tour of the 133-year-old building near the picturesque Ely Square.

Inside, signs of deterioration were apparent.

Black mold, sewage stained walls, leaky pipes, caved in floors and uncapped, nonfunctioning toilets were evident.

"You have rodent droppings, ants and spiders, things like that going in the building. It's kind of disgusting," 18-year administrative assistant Gail Rogers said.

Last year, the probation department also reported that they found homeless people living on the third floor of the building wearing clothes that employees donated for needy families in the area.

Probation employees put the Lorain County commissioners on notice four years ago. They have sent more than over 200 maintenance requests dealing with mildew, dangerous debris and asbestos.

"What we can do is assure that our people work in in reasonable and safe conditions, court administrator Tim Lubbe said. "They are trying to make a difference for us as citizens, and what they do is trying to keep us safe as citizens."

Channel 3 News obtained city inspections reports from the old courthouse. In a letter sent to Elyria city leaders on April 30, inspectors reported no serious issues. Elyria chief building official Phillip M. Lahetta reported:

The building while old is in relatively decent shape. Other than some water damage evidence there was no large visible sighting of mold or rodents. One major concern was that many windows had broken sash latches and missing or torn screens. This could allow for rodents to enter the building.

Probation Department supervisors have reported a few windows on the second and third floors have been screwed shut since the inspection, but nothing has been done with the visible cosmetic deterioration in other parts of the building.

The Elyria Health Department also reviewed the building. In their report, David Oakes, Environmental Health Director said:

With the exception of some water damage in rooms 104, 106, no issues were observed in the old courthouse that would be of concern to the health district.

Thirty-year county employee Julie Battistelli would vehemently disagree.

She has been concerned for her health for the past several years and has been diagnosed with some auto immune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis.

"I haven't gotten any better, and I know a lot of other people around here have had illness too that they just can't kick," she said.

Although her doctors can't say for sure her declining health is due to working inside the old courthouse, she believes the work environment has played a factor in it.

Security is another concern for the employees. The Probation Department deals with roughly 2000 felons countywide, ranging from drug offenders to convicted murderers.

"We deal with the most high-profiled felons who are not in jail," said officer Brian Thomas. "The lack of security is alarming and if the average person came in here they'd ask 'Why are they doing business here on a day-to-day basis?' "

During the tour, a Channel 3 producer and photographer did not notice any sheriff's deputies, metal detectors or screening process throughout the entire the building.

"If something happens here and someone needs help, where is it coming from and how long will it take to get here?" veteran officer Anthony Zerbini asked. " I want to go home to my wife and kids every night, and it's something I think about every day."

Cordilla Simpson, who is wheelchair bound, just wrapped up her year of probation visits to the old courthouse. The disabled woman complained how difficult it was just getting inside the building.

She said the door was so rusted that someone had to kick it open for her. Once inside, she got stuck on a broken elevator for a half hour.

"It was pretty aggravating. I started crying and became hysterical because I didn't know what was going on," she said. "The building isn't really accessible for handicapped people."

Politics seems to be rearing its ugly head. Three county commissioners have three separate ideas as to what should be the next to move.

"If we go to the Justice Center, we will have a true hall of justice," said Commissioner Tom Williams. "It's a huge political issue, and we need to try to get one more commissioner to support it."

Commissioner Ted Kalo wants the department to sit tight while a better option is explored.

Commissioner Lori Kokoski's vision is to have the unit in their own free-standing building along Broad Street.

In a recent commissioners' meeting, Lorain County common pleas judges came out in full force and voiced their opinions and urged the panel to get the probation department some immediate help.

"People should be out of that building because it's an old courthouse that's not usable," Judge John Miraldi said. "We are asking them to work in deplorable conditions, and we invited them to our office and then they go back to work in that pit. It's just not right".

Others addressed the commissioners and invited them to visit the building for themselves.

"I'm appalled and ashamed of myself that I didn't walk across sooner," confessed Judge Jim Miraldi. "What I saw over there wouldn't be good enough for a probation department in a third world country."

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