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From John Dillinger to Johnny Depp, the remarkable history of the Pima County Courthouse

Historic Pima County Courthouse
Posted at 2:11 PM, Nov 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-09 20:24:35-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — It might be the most recognizable building in downtown Tucson, the Historic Pima County Courthouse.

No longer used as a courthouse, here's a look at its remarkable past—at its promising future and at what makes it "Absolutely Arizona."

"We feel so lucky to be here. What an iconic building and what a great adaptive reuse, Director of Pima County Attractions and Tourism, Diane Frisch said.

Her office is now located inside the Historic Pima County Courthouse.

She says it was a brilliant idea to re-purpose the old courthouse as an attraction itself, with a visitors center.

"People recognize the tiled dome. It's the county logo. If you look on any of our business cards that's what it is. When you say 'do you see the tile dome?' 'Oh yes I know right where that is, I'll come right down.'"

The county has preserved the history of the Spanish colonial revival building, which opened in 1929. And what a history it has.

"My office shares a wall with the Dillinger courtroom."

That's right, public enemy number one, John Dillinger.

On January 23, 1934, fire broke out at Hotel Congress downtown.

Tucson firefighters recognized two members of the Dillinger gang after they helped them escape the fire.

Two days later, Tucson Police had Dillinger and his gang in custody without a shot being fired.

On January 26, 1934, Dillinger and his gang were arraigned at the Pima County Courthouse in courtroom one.

John Dillinger and his Dillinger gang inside the Pima County Courthouse courtroom one.
FILE - In this Jan. 25, 1934 file photo, members of the Dillinger outlaw gang, from left, Russel Clark, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, John Dilliger, Ann Martin and Mary Kinder are arraigned in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo, file)

As you can imagine, it was a very big deal for Tucson.

Frisch says people still come to the courthouse and share stories with her about family members seeing John Dillinger.

"My great-grandfather was here when Dillinger was convicted in the courtroom and was actually in the courtroom and paid a quarter to walk through and see him."

On January 29, 1934, Dillinger was extradited by airplane to east Chicago, Indiana.

Today, the newly renovated courthouse includes an extensive exhibit on Dillinger in Tucson.

John Dillinger Courtroom inside the historic Pima County Courthouse

Plus, you can now go inside courtroom one, restored as it was in 1934, as a radio program tells you about the trial.

But John Dillinger wasn't the only famous person to have their day in court inside the Pima County Courthouse.

"Clark Gable got into a little accident and had to pay a $50 ticket. Johnny Depp had a speeding ticket. Then there are all kinds of other cases that were landmark cases in Arizona history here."

They're all documented in the new display outside the Dillinger courtroom.

There are also stories about people staying after hours in the historic courthouse.

"The stories about it being haunted or ghosts or lights going on and off, those are fun. I don't like to stay here at dark by myself when they tell me 'oh yeah there are people that walk the halls.' We don't need any of that. But it's a lot of fun."

Frisch says it's also been fun working in the refurbished courthouse, which has been on the national register of historic places since 1978.

Historic Pima County Courthouse

She credits County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's vision for remembering the past — while re-purposing the building for the future.

"He saw that everything was kept. Photographs, records, court documents, all of those things. He really was a champion and kind of a pack rat and kept all that. When it came down to it, and we were trying to piece things together, we had a wonderful history."

A history that will be preserved for at least another 92 years.

Pima County will hold a ribbon cutting ceremony and reopening celebration Tuesday to showoff the courthouse renovations.

November 15 -19, the county will have dozens of events open to the public.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.