A history of justice

Downtown Auburn courthouse ‘mythological,’ powerful to many
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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It started out as a wood structure and evolved into perhaps one of the most notable physical marks of Auburn. The historic courthouse in Downtown has been the site of numerous court cases and is a respected landmark by many in the local law community. The landmark is a matter of pride for longtime Placer County Judge James Garbolino. When Garbolino was appointed in 1984, he originally heard cases in the Dewitt Center off Bell Road and Highway 49 because the historic courthouse was undergoing renovations. It wasn’t until about 1990 when cases could be held in the historic building. “To me it made a big difference in the way the public and litigants saw the entire system,” Garbolino said. “In the DeWitt Center, the surroundings gave the impression that nothing really important was happening.” The atmosphere changed drastically, however, when cases resumed in Downtown Auburn. “When we went back to the historic courthouse, it was very apparent that it was a more dignified building and atmosphere,” Garbolino said. “The courthouse litigants themselves acted entirely different. There was more respect.” Garbolino credits the courthouse committee for spearheading and maintaining the renovation process. The process to build the current structure was an almost 40-year journey. In 1851, some of the first court proceedings in Placer County took place in a wood and canvas structure located on Court Street in Auburn, according to information complied by Lori Smith, court historian. A year later, a $16,000 contract was awarded to build a permanent courthouse. On Dec. 10, 1853, court was in session at the two-story wooden courthouse. In 1868, the courthouse’s condition began to deteriorate and officials started to plan repairs. An 1891 Grand Jury reported that the courthouse was “old, unsightly and unsafe.” Following the report, a new courthouse was constructed at the cost of a little more than $172,000. John M. Curtis, who designed the San Francisco City Hall, was commissioned as the architect. Construction on the new courthouse began in 1894 and was finished four years later. One of the most famous cases tried in the historic courthouse occurred in the 1950s. A well-respected Presbyterian minister and his partner were found guilty of bilking a Loomis family of their savings. Together they convinced the family they were targets of an impending Internal Revenue Service raid. The reverend his partner said they would keep the money in a safe place but instead stole it. Garbolino said sugar was what eventually led investigators to arrest the duo. Garbolino explained that at one point the Loomis family’s home flooded. The family dried the money by putting it on cookie sheets and baking it in the oven. The district attorney at the time went to local banks and asked them if anyone had turned in musty money or money with sugar and flour attached to it. The money was traced to he minister and his partner. Both were arrested. The minister ultimately pleaded guilty while a jury found the partner guilty. “Many people believed he (the minister) was not capable of doing what he said he had done,” Garbolino said. “Some prominent city leaders attended the trial. It was quite a scene.” For long-time criminal defense attorney Mark Berg, the courthouse holds a special significance. Berg has worked in Auburn for the past 25 years. A career that included a short stint at the District Attorney’s Office and as a former president of the Placer County Bar Association. From a window in his office on 1515 Lincoln Way, Berg can see the over 100-year-old building. “I look at the courthouse in a mythological sense,” Berg said. “You feel a sense of pride. We have such a beautiful building that represents such a profound part of our system.” District Attorney Brad Fenocchio said the historic courthouse has served as stepping stone for judges and attorneys who have made their mark not only on the county, but also the state. “It has been a place where a great deal has happened that has set the tone for where society is today,” Fenocchio said. Since Fenocchio came to the county in 1985, there have been numerous significant cases his office has tried. “We’ve tried murder cases, rape cases, child molestation cases – the variety of horrifying things that people inflict on one another,” Fenocchio said. “Some have been favorable for the prosecution, some have not.” While most court proceedings will now take place at the new Bill Santucci Justice Center in Roseville, the historic courthouse will always hold a special significance for those who have worked in its halls. “It was just really a privilege to be able to sit in that courthouse and be a part of the justice system there because of its cultural and historical value,” Garbolino said. The Journal's Jenifer Gee can be reached at or post a comment. ---------- Fast facts: Historic Auburn Courthouse - Construction began on the current building in 1894 and was completed four years later - The current building was built for a little more than $172,000 - Architect John M. Curtis also designed the San Francisco City Hall - In 1960 the courthouse was deemed a “site possessing exceptional value” in the United States under the National Historical Preservation Act, according to Smith’s information. - Originally the courthouse housed several county offices including the sheriff’s office, district attorney, county superintendent, treasure, assessor, coroner and surveyor. Source: Lori Smith, Placer County Court Historian ---------- Judge James Garbolino Age: 65 Residence: Roseville Occupation: Placer County Superior Court judge appointed in 1984 District Attorney Brad Fenocchio Age: 60 History: Worked through night law school. Graduated from Lincoln University School of Law in Sacramento in 1977 Elected Placer County District Attorney in 1994, re-elected in 1998 and re-elected without opposition in 2002 Awards: In 2003, California Attorney General Bill Lockyear awarded the Placer County District Attorney’s Office with the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award for Elder Abuse Prosecution Criminal Defense Attorney Mark Berg Age: 59 Residence: Auburn Resume: Worked as a deputy district attorney for two years. Has been a criminal defense attorney in Placer County for 24 years. Notable: Acknowledged by author Steve Marini in best-sellers Compelling Evidence and Prime Witness ----------