of the law
By Anne Stanton
If someone accidentally carries a loaded gun into an airport
screening area, they are completely stupid and deserve every bad thing that happens afterward. Right?
Well, before you jump to that easy conclusion, read the story of
Christine Blackledge and how this upstanding citizen of Traverse City paid for one of the dumbest mistakes in her life.
Blackledge is a mother of six, grandmother of seven, and owner of
Michigan Decorations, a company that gussies up downtowns throughout
the state with holiday decorations.
On November 5, she came home at 3:30 a.m., exhausted after a night of
working in Bay City with her crew. She did some bookkeeping and packed
a suitcase to get ready for a trip to New York to see her daughter
dance on stage. She could sleep on the plane, she told herself, and
all would be well.
That morning she took out of her purse the tools of her trade
measuring tapes, screwdrivers, pliers, and wire cutters. Her purse
felt light, especially since she usually carries a 40-caliber handgun
for protection on the rough city streets (she has handled guns all her
After she folded her clothes, she packed her toiletries in quantities
small enough to meet airport requirements.
Blackledge arrived at the Cherry Capital Airport, feeling exhausted
from two straight days of working. She got into line, set her suitcase
and purse on the conveyer belt. Just as her purse hit the X-ray
machine, she smacked her head and yelled, Oh no! She realized she
had replaced her 40-caliber pistol with a lighter 9 millimeter gun,
and it was still in her purse. She had put it in a zippered
compartment and completely forgotten about it.
My first thought was, my daughter was still in the parking lot. Is
there anybody who could take it to her? Which is really stupid. But I
just wanted to resolve it and get on to New York.
Just as the TSA screener had noticed the gun, Blackledges daughter
came running up with cash that had been forgotten in the car. It was
a three ring circus, she said.
Blackledge was immediately pulled to the side where she was questioned
by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer and, later,
a Traverse City police officer. I explained how it happened. I was
very sorry. Theyre asking me, how many shells did it have. They take
a picture of it. The city officer runs a check on the gun and finds
out its been stolen.
Someone had stolen the gun from her home seven years ago; it had been
recovered last summer in a downstate drug bust and returned to
Blackledge just a few weeks before. The TSA overheard the city
officer, and assumed shed stolen the gun.
It took forever to get through to TSA its my gun and it was stolen from me.
After about 30 minutes, she was set free. She took the next flight out.
First thing Monday morning, she called the Grand Traverse County
prosecutors office to explain what happened. She was well acquainted
with the staff because shed been a victim of a crime on September 7,
2008. That was the day Wayne Hutter, a long-time friend, had walked
into her unlocked home, angry and drunk. I told him I didnt want to
talk, and he pulled a gun, pointed it at my head, and said, We will
talk. He held me hostage and screamed at me for 20 minutes.
Judge Haley of the 86th District Court set a $25,000 bond, which
essentially allowed Hutter to walk the streets freely until his
conviction in mid-January, when his bond was revoked. During his four
months of freedom, Blackledge went on the run, staying with friends,
at hotels, and her sisters house in Florida. I will remember those
days for the rest of my life.
She had possessed a concealed weapons permit for years, but after the
assault, she decided to carry a gun with her at all times (with the
exception of airports).
Blackledge is not afraid to speak out. She went to the media about
Haleys bonding decision. Shes also been outspoken on the financial
irregularities on the Traverse City Housing Commission (she was right,
but was politely pushed off the board).
Now she has something to say about our judicial system.
A DECISION TO CHARGE
The clerk at the Grand Traverse Prosecutors office told Blackledge
that she didnt have a report yet. She said, it could be two or three
weeks. I was thinking when the report did come, I would be asked to
come into the office. I did something wrong; Im expecting to pay a
fine. I realize there are going to be repercussions, but never in my
wildest dreams did I ever expect what happened next.
People had unknowingly brought weapons to the airport screening area
before, Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Al Schneider told the
In fact, just after 9/11, a retired police officer had forgotten to
take his gun out of his briefcase. He wasnt charged, but Schneider
said it prompted him to meet with state law enforcement, TSA, and
federal justice officials. The consensus was there had to be intent
to bring a charge. There have been numerous instances at the airport
since then; Schneider couldnt recall charging anyone.
But this time, an assistant prosecutor argued that negligence was
sufficient in the case of a loaded gun. The law wasnt clear about
intent, and what if someone saw the gun in her purse and panicked?
The prosecutor issued a warrant for Blackledges arrest. A conviction
would mean up to one year in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine.
Two weeks later, Blackledge came home from another job at 4 a.m. She
Around 8 a.m., Ive got doorbells ringing, telephones ringing, people
pounding at my door. I think its my crew of guys. I come down the
stairway, half asleep, and there are police officers at my backdoor. I
recognize Officer Bosner from the assault. He protected me at Hutters
trial. He told me, there are police officers at the front door with
warrants for your arrest and we need to let them in.
He follows me in the house, I unlock the front door; there are two
officers there, and a police car down the street What the heck! They
told me, we have a warrant for your arrest for carrying a gun at the
airport. Im stunned. I ask, Can I get dressed? Put some jeans on?
Theres no reason to do that. Youll have to change at the jail. So
they told me, just take your drivers license. How about my
concealed weapons permit? That makes sense.
Fortunately, Blackledge had already thrown on a pair of sweatpants and
a t-shirt. Unfortunately, she had a severe chest and head cold. The
officer accompanied Blackledge upstairs while she put on a sweatshirt,
handcuffed her and led her out to the police car.
He tells me to put my head down and pushes me in. Hes trying to be
cool about it.
Problems at the jail quickly arose. Blackledge was constantly hacking.
A guard, fearing she had the swine flu, told her she was too sick to
fingerprint. Her attorney arrived to post bond money but was told to
come back because she hadnt been booked yet.
Blackledge was told to sit on the bench. A guard noticed her
sweatpants had a string. They told me to take the string off. Theyll
fall down if I do that, so they made me put on jail clothes. The guard
stood outside the door while I undressed and dressed. It was very
A JAIL KIT
At this point, I havent had anything to drink, nothing to eat. They
gave me a mask, and I can hardly breathe. Im cold and miserable. Im
on the bench. I ask a guard, Can I please have a drink of water? I
cant stop coughing. She told me, We dont have glasses. You have to
buy a jail kit. I have no money, my attorney showed up to pay bond.
But yes, Ill buy the jail kit. Its got toothpaste, a comb, a
toothbrush, gargle, and a plastic cup. The guard empties it out and
gives me a glass. It costs $12. I have to pay $12 to get a glass of
water. Thats the only way you can get a sip of water. So she lets me
go across the hall to the faucet. And Im sipping on water. [Grand
Traverse Sheriffs Captain Bob Hall, who oversees the jail, said that
everyone has to pay $12 for a booking fee; the jail kit is free.]
A nurse came by, and offered help. The guard wouldnt even let the
nurse look at me!Im coughing and hacking and this other woman whos
in jail said, Why did they let you in here? Are they trying to make
us all sick? Do you have the swine flu? We think youre in here as a
plot! Now the prisoners think Im a bad person!
So the guard put Blackledge into a glass-encased cell. Sick and
exhausted, Blackledge curled up in a fetal position on a steel bed.
Im freezing. Im right across from the desk, other people are coming
in. Mostly males, and theyre sitting on the bench.
Blackledge had to go to the bathroom. There was a stainless steel
toilet in the cell, but she didnt want people to watch her. So she
taps on the jail door.
The officer finally comes, the one who wouldnt fingerprint me. Can
I please go to the bathroom? Please. He doesnt say anything, but
just points to the toilet. I thought, Ill pee my pants before I
pull down my britches in front of these people. Theres no way Ill do
that. [Hall said theres a half wall in front of the toilet, so
although you can see the persons head as theyre sitting on the
toilet, you cant see their bottom.]
Meanwhile, Blackledge is hungry; she saw lunch getting handed out just
before her magistrates hearing, but thought it was for inmates, and
no one offered her lunch. [Hall said a sergeant reported she declined
WAITING & THINKING
Finally, a young officer cracked the door of her cell and told her he
was trying hard to get her paperwork through, but shed have to see
the magistrate via a video conference at 1 p.m. Fortunately,
Blackledge was the second in line, the hearing was short, and the
magistrate said she could be released on her own recognizance.
But she continued to sit. For nearly three hours she sat.
I kept thinking, Ive already been let out on my recognizance and I
still cant get out.
Finally just before 4 p.m., a young looking teen comes in, yelling
profanities, saying he wanted to talk to his grandfather.
Hes a handful, scared to death. I was scared to death. I didnt know
if I wanted to start screaming and yelling or break down crying.
Theres a horrible feeling, nothing you can do. I could understand his
panic. I felt sorry for him. The guard said, Guess well be letting
you out, well need the cell for problem child here. Heres your box.
Put your clothes on, and go out the door, she said.
Blackledges day ended as quickly as it began.
I got my clothes on Its 4:30 by now, misting. I walk home. I felt
like Alice in Wonderland. What just happened?
THE OTHER SIDE
Hall initially said, without knowing the full story, that Blackledge
wasnt fingerprinted or photographed because the jail staff feared she
had the swine flu and wanted to get her out quickly. Everyone was
masked up, he said.
In a later interview, he explained that sometimes we dont
(fingerprint or photograph) due to the nature of the charge or if a
person has a subsequent court hearing.
Releases started at 2 p.m.the jail staff must first receive signed
papers from the magistrate. Blackledgedespite being too sick to
fingerprinthad to wait in line behind the others who came in before
her, a jail policy. She was by herself. She wasnt infecting
anyone, Hall explained.
When someone new shows up, the single jail staffer must stop the
release process to do the intake paperwork. Things would go much
faster if he had more staff, he said.
We live with these people, he said. We understand their circumstances.
Jail is most unpleasant, but it must be safe; others have said the
jail runs more smoothly than most, he said.
A TOTAL WASTE
After getting jailed, Blackledge received a letter from the TSA, with
a fine of $3,000, but only $1,500 if it was paid within 30 days.
Blackledge called the 800 number, as instructed, and eventually had a
long conversation with TSAs attorney, Scott Klippel.
She told him the story of her arrest. He was surprised that a cadre of
police officers would come to her door, shut off the street, and
handcuff herfor a misdemeanor. He wrote a follow-up email to her,
saying that the home arrest was unnecessary and, in his opinion as a
former prosecutor and defense attorney, a total waste of scarce law
Does the Traverse City Police Department send a handful of police
officers for every misdemeanor?
Traverse City Police Chief Mike Warren said no.
Some people get an appearance ticket, in which they come in unescorted
for the booking. Carrying a gun into a sterile zone of the airport
isnt one of those instances.
Blackledge ultimately had to hire an expensive lawyer who advised her
to plead guilty on charges of bringing a gun into the sterile area of
Meanwhile, Blackledge was written up in a local paper for a
three-month trip she planned to take in Februarya humanitarian
mission to Africa where she would teach villagers how to irrigate
their land, make solar cookers, and run a tiny business.
The article didnt mention that she had been ordered to appear in
court seven days after she was scheduled to fly out. The prosecutor
had actually dropped the charges on January 19, but she didnt find
out until last week, when the Express gave her the news. Schneider
explained to Express that his office decided the TSA fine was
Blackledge still must cut her trip two months short, though, because
13th Circuit Judge Tom Power refused to allow a rescheduling of her
civil trial against Hutter; her lawyer forgot to mention her African
trip in his rescheduling request, only mentioning his scheduled hip
Blackledge said she knows she must pay for her mistake (her fine was
ultimately reduced to $350), but wonders about the waste of police,
jail and prosecutorial staff on a misdemeanor case that had a simple
explanation. How many times does this happen, she wondered. She urged
Always being on the good side of the lawhelping with the
prosecution of Hutter, as well as the man who stole her gundidnt
seem to matter this time, she said. This experience humbled her.
I once went on a jail tour with the Grand Traverse Leadership Group.
You eat the jail food, you tour the rooms. But I tell you, its
nothing like the reality.