By Alan Sorensen
The Hill County Clerk of Court staff started its day with a bang Thursday literally.
Deputy Clerk of Court Kathie Vigliotti and part-time employee Angi Disalvo were hoisting criminal case files from lower to higher shelves in the office's second floor vault when they were startled by a deafening explosion.
Vigliotti said she was boosting documents up to Disalvo when an envelope slipped from her hand and landed on the floor with a bang. Actually, it was two bangs as two .38 special bullets exploded on impact and ripped the envelope apart.
One of the bullets struck Vigliotti on an inside strap of her leather sandals. It left a mark but caused her no injury. Both workers said the sound of the explosion stayed with them for the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon.
"My ears rang until about 1 o'clock," Vigliotti said. "Both of our ears were popping. I screamed; I just screamed."
They found the casing for one of the shells on the other side of a nearby shelf. "It must have flown over the top," Vigliotti said.
Another worker on the second floor heard the metal on concrete noise and thought someone trying to hide in a nearby room had kicked a garbage can. She went to check, but found no one. It wasn't until later that she learned what really happened.
It turned out that the two bullets were among more than a dozen of different sizes that were kept as evidence in an assault case dated June 3, 1938. They evidently had been stored in the clerk of court's vault since the suspect had been found innocent of assaulting her husband with a deadly weapon almost 62 years ago.
Though the court documents for the case are sketchy, it appears that the Havre jury found Eunice Garrity innocent of the charge of assaulting her husband, Tom "T.J." Garrity, by reason of insanity.
The charge was evidently serious, because Garrity had been ordered held on $1,500 bail, which Hill County Clerk of Court Dena Tippets said was a lot of money in 1938.
Clerk of Court at the time was Levi Fossum and 12th Judicial District Court Judge C.B. Elwell, from whom Lake Elwell got its name, heard the case.
Other evidence listed in the manifest accompanying the bullets were a man's shirt and a woman's skirt. Neither was in evidence at the time of Thursday's blast. Among the bullets that didn't discharge were nine more .38 specials, a .22 long rifle, and a pair of .32 calibers.
"I wonder how many other files have bullets back there?" Tippets mused. "We keep exhibits separate from the files now."
Where was the gun that Garrity used in the alleged assault? It was returned to her, according to court records, on June 29. Officials apparently didn't trust her enough to return the bullets.