The only barriers between Michael Shostek and freedom last week were a 6-foot-tall cardboard policeman and a sprinting judge.
Neither stopped him.
Shostek, 29, of Canajoharie, appeared in Palatine Town Court the evening of Dec. 12 to answer misdemeanor heroin charges. Judge Ron Dygert set cash bail at $1,500 and told Shostek a deputy was on his way to bring him to Montgomery County Jail. At that point, Shostek apparently decided obeying his appearance ticket had been a bad idea.
“He asked, ‘Does that mean I’m going to jail?’ ” Dygert recounted. “I said yes it did, and he ran out.”
Thursday night Dygert, his clerk and Shostek were the only three people in the courtroom. The door was guarded, as usual, by “Deputy I.M. Cheap,” the cardboard policeman cutout Dygert bought as a joke a few years ago.
Dygert told Shostek to stop, but with no flesh-and-blood officers in the room, he didn’t listen. As Shostek made for the exit, Dygert took matters into his own hands, dodging around the protective partition and giving chase.
“He is 29. I’m 64. I don’t run like I did 20 years ago,” Dygert said. “I don’t know what I would have done had I caught him.”
By the time the judge reached the parking lot, Shostek was gone into the night.
“Fortunately, it was really cold,” Dygert said. “He couldn’t make it far.”
The court clerk called police with a description of the fugitive. State troopers found Shostek two hours later in a Stewart’s Shop less than a mile from court. At the time of his arrest, Dygert said, Shostek had a bag of heroin in his pocket.
Shostek remained in jail Wednesday with no bail set, facing additional charges of escape, criminal contempt, impersonation and possession of a controlled substance. He is due back in court today, but Dygert isn’t worried about another escape attempt.
“He’s coming from the jail this time,” he said. “There will be a real deputy with him.”
As the case progresses, Dygert plans to recuse himself.
Counting Shostek, only four defendants have escaped from Dygert’s courtroom in 27 years. Three of those subsequently were caught.
According to state Office of Court Administration spokesman David Bookstaver, smaller rural town courts often go without security personnel.
“It’s a funding issue,” he said. “The towns would have to pay, so taxes would go up.”
Escapes from the rural courts, he said, are pretty rare.
Even so, Dygert said his job at the Palatine Court is becoming more and more risky. He’s not concerned about escapes as much as his own personal safety.
“Ninety percent of our cases are just regular people,” he said. “But even the big felony cases start in town court.”
Shostek, who was in on misdemeanor charges, is a two-time violent felon, Dygert said. Days before the appearance and escape, a Shostek family member called the court saying he was unstable and had a drug problem.
To make things worse, court is conducted in a 12-by-15-foot room in the crowded Palatine Town Hall — a space known by regular lawyers as “the closet.”
While making potentially unpopular decisions, the judge sits just a few feet and a waist-high partition away from the accused.
In 2006, town officials bought a section of land and set aside $400,000 to build a larger town hall. A larger structure, Dygert said, would put more space between him and criminals, but the project stalled out.
“We still have the money,” he said. “We should use it.”
Town Supervisor Brian Sweet did not return calls Wednesday for comment on the project or the lack of court security.