Backers of Senate candidate trapped in courthouse after Miss. primary

Republican primary challenger Chris McDaniel says longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is "one of the biggest spenders in Washington" and is out of touch with Mississippi and its conservative roots, Thursday, May 15, 2014, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. McDaniel, a state senator from Ellisville, also accused the veteran senator of being a liberal and again challenged him to a debate. Cochran's campaign spokesman, Jordan Russell, says McDaniel's statements are "a sign of a desperate campaign," as both sides hunker down for a June 3 primary. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Rogelio V. Solis, AP

A tea party officer and two others representing the challenger in a Senate primary became trapped in a courthouse in the middle of the night, hours after officials had gone home from counting votes, authorities said.

Janis Lane, Scott Brewster and Rob Chambers were locked inside the Hinds County Courthouse more than an hour after entering shortly before 2 a.m. Wednesday through an unlocked door, said Othor Cain, spokesman for the sheriff's department, which is investigating.

Noel Fritsch, spokesman for candidate Chris McDaniel, said the three went to check on why some precincts hadn't been counted. Once inside, the door locked behind them and they had to call for help to get out. Other elections officials had locked up equipment and ballots and gone home around 11:30 p.m.

Lane is president of the Central Mississippi Tea Party and is a longtime supporter of McDaniel, who is trying to unseat six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran.

The McDaniel-Cochran race is going to a June 24 runoff because a third candidate received a small share of Tuesday's primary vote, preventing either of them from receiving the majority needed to win.

Brewster works as coalition director for the McDaniel campaign. Chambers works for the lobbying arm of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. Lane, Brewster and Chambers did immediately not return calls for comment.

Hinds County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Pete Perry, who's supporting Cochran, said Lane called him at 2 a.m. Wednesday, saying she and a friend were locked inside the courthouse, that nobody else was inside and they needed help getting out.

Perry said Lane, who is on the GOP county committee, told him that when she was trying to get into the courthouse, she spoke to a man she believed was a police officer and that he showed them a door that appeared to be ajar.

Perry said he called the Hinds County Sheriff's Department. Cain, the department spokesman, said a deputy sent someone to let Lane, Brewster and Chambers out of the locked building.

"I told the deputy: 'I hope you don't just let her out. I hope you ask her what she was doing there,'" Perry told the AP.

Fritsch said nothing improper happened, but the Cochran campaign has linked the incident to the controversy surrounding the photographing of Cochran's wife in her nursing home room, which led to the arrest of McDaniel supporters and Tea Party activists.

"It is astonishing that the same people who are up to their eyeballs in four felons breaking into a nursing home are also up to their eyeballs in potentially breaking in somewhere else again," Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell said. "And this time they can't deny that a paid staffer is involved. At some point you got to say enough is enough. How many more arrests of allies and McDaniel team members before we can say this has gone too far?"

Fritsch responded, "Predictably, a close Cochran ally wants to make hay out of this. Sadly, the Cochran campaign wants to make this election about anything but issues."

The sheriff's department is interviewing people about what happened, Cain said. He said the courthouse had been closed at 11:30 p.m. and ballots and voting machines were locked up when the three were alone in the courthouse.

"There are conflicting stories from the three of them, which began to raise the red flag, and we're trying to get to the bottom of it," Cain told the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger. "No official charges have been filed at this point, but we don't know where the investigation will lead us."

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