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The Oliver Hill Courts Building is structurally sound, equipped with metal detectors and patrolled by a large contingent of armed Richmond sheriff's deputies.
That combination still hasn't been enough to prevent a number of unwanted visitors from gaining access to the structure recently.
In the past month, four snakes have been found inside the courthouse — a first for a structure that opened in July 1996 in Shockoe Valley, near the Richmond City Jail and just northeast of the city's main downtown business district.
A representative from a pest-control company has made several visits to Oliver Hill since the discovery of the first snake, said Trish Muller, the chief operations officer for the courts building, which houses Richmond's Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
"This is juvenile court, so I've got small kids in this building," Muller said. "Even if a snake is harmless and not poisonous, I don't want a child going up to it and playing with it."
All four snakes were relatively small, and there's no indication that any of them were poisonous. Two were found by deputies in hallways and killed. A third was discovered under a vending machine by a night janitor and also was killed. A fourth was captured in a cardboard glue trap set out by Critter Control, the Richmond company hired to search for the snakes.
Critter Control operator Keith Copi said the one that ended up in the glue trap near the building's rear doors was a black rat snake, 16 to 18 inches long, probably less than two months old and not much thicker than a standard pencil. He used some cooking oil to free the snake from the trap, took it to his home and released it.
Copi said a combination of factors likely led the snakes into the building: Oliver Hill is near several wooded tracts and sits in a low-lying area; in addition, the heavy rains that accompanied Irene and Lee prompted snakes to search for higher, drier habitats.
"It's just a seasonal thing. It's something that happens every year," Copi said. "It's just like when the crickets come in when it gets cold."
Copi said the unusually wet conditions likely were the primary motivating factor in the snakes making their way to Oliver Hill.
"My experience is it does seem like it gets worse when we have these tropical systems," he said. "And even though this building is extremely, extremely tightly built, they don't need much space at all. They came in right between the double doors, I'm sure."
No snakes have been found yet in any of Oliver Hill's five courtrooms, but Copi isn't taking any chances that the building is completely serpent-free. He has placed nearly two dozen glue boards throughout the structure, and he went to the rear of the property to apply Snake-A-Way, a granular repellent that relies in part on sulfur to drive away snakes.
Even though there's no indication the four snakes were anything more than nonpoisonous juveniles, Muller said she emailed all courthouse employees to tell them about the pest-control efforts.
"Knowing how the rumor mills can be with inaccurate information, we have taken great pains to try to make sure the whole building was informed," she said. "We don't want anyone to be surprised by anything, so we took it very seriously."
Copi said snakes are driven by their need to find live prey, and since the building has no history of rodent problems, the snakes quickly will realize they need to move elsewhere in their quest for food. If they can't figure a way out of the courthouse, they'll die from a lack of nutrition.
While snakes in a high-traffic area such as a busy courthouse can be unsettling, Copi said it's not a situation that's unique to Oliver Hill. Critter Control has seen an increase in calls in recent weeks for snakes in houses and other structures.
"I don't think there's a building in Richmond that they couldn't get into," he said.
Credits: By Joe Macenka - Richmond Times-Dispatch