Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005 | 7:10 a.m.
Several years ago, he abandoned that quest, but the desire to get to the bottom of official secrets never left him.
Today, this obsessive eccentric with a penetrating gaze hopes to shine a light on another institution shrouded in mystery: the Clark County Family Court.
"I see myself doing exactly the same thing in Family Court as I was doing at Area 51, only meaningful -- aliens aren't meaningful," Campbell said on a recent afternoon, sitting in the waiting room that he refers to as "the Tank."
Campbell, a 46-year-old with a salt-and-pepper mustache whose eyelids flutter rapidly as he speaks, sees both Area 51 and the Family Court essentially theaters of human nature. All around him, babies squalled, parents wept and young children wandered, their faces dazed.
Unlike the secret air base at Groom Lake, Family Court's existence is acknowledged by the government. But many of its courtrooms are closed, its litigants are anonymous and its records are sealed. When the court closes each night, there is no public evidence that anything happened there.
And that drives Campbell crazy.
His project, through a Web site cataloging his observations of the court, is to subject its proceedings to unprecedented scrutiny. He hopes to introduce Las Vegans, many of whom have been through its doors, to the real Family Court the same way he introduced the world to Area 51.
Family Court is where all of the messy legal proceedings surrounding families and their dysfunctions occur. Child custody, domestic violence, divorces, child abuse -- all these are decided in the court's complex, a squat cluster of buildings at the corner of Pecos and Bonanza roads.
"This is where government tries to pick up the pieces -- or at least stop the bleeding -- of thousands of troubled families and failed relationships," Campbell writes on his Web site about the court, FamilyCourtChronicles.com.
The Family Court building, he writes, "isn't just a courthouse; it's one-stop shopping for all of your dysfunctional family needs."
The sardonic tone is typical of Campbell and his writing. He seems amused by the swirling carnival of human suffering he observes passing through the court every day, relishing the extremes of emotion with a clinician's zeal for the unusual.
But he is not always so detached. His interest in Family Court is motivated by more than an eye for a good drama. At the bottom of his project, it turns out, lurks a broken heart.
The Desert Rat
In the early 1990s, long before the site was featured on the TV show "The X-Files" and in the movie "Independence Day," Campbell was one of two or three people who made Area 51 a household name. Adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, the vast base is a secret testing ground for military aircraft; many also believe it is used for government study of extraterrestrials and their spacecraft.
Campbell, who attended the Ivy League's Brown University (but did not graduate) and worked as a computer programmer in Boston, ditched everything in 1992 to move to tiny Rachel, the closest settlement to the mysterious tract of land that at that time had been heard of only by Nevadans and hard-core UFO buffs.
Living out of a rented trailer, Campbell set about making a pest of himself, something at which he admits he excels. He haunted the borders of the restricted area with binoculars, daring the lurking, camouflaged guards to come after him. He loudly demanded to know why a base that didn't exist was ringed by signs that warned trespassers they could be shot.
From 1993 to 1997, Campbell published the Desert Rat Newsletter and the Area 51 Visitor's Guide. He gleefully hosted journalists, plane spotters and self-styled alien abductees from around the world as he sought to peel away the site's veil of secrecy.
He collected every shred of information he could dig up about the base, discovering, for instance, that it received several flights a day from a satellite terminal at McCarran International Airport.
He led a motley crew of base-watchers he called the Interceptors, including a designer of toy models of secret planes and a traffic engineer obsessed with the force of gravity. He was featured in an article in the New York Times Magazine and a two-hour television special hosted by Larry King.
By 1996, Area 51 was so well known that the state renamed State Route 375 "The Extraterrestrial Highway," with cosmically themed signs marking its length.
"Glenn made that place," said Mike Dornheim, a Los Angeles-based senior editor at Aviation Week magazine, who was one of the Interceptors. "There were other Area 51 people, but he made it accessible and interesting to the average guy."
Campbell enjoyed thumbing his nose at government secrecy, an enthusiasm that eventually got him arrested. But all the while that Campbell was collecting data about the base, his real attention was focused elsewhere, Dornheim said.
"It quickly became apparent to me that Glenn was really a sociologist," he said. "He was as agnostic as he could possibly be about little green men and so on, so that both sides would talk to him. What he was really doing was collecting information about how myths are formed."
Campbell acknowledges that his primary interests have always been philosophical and psychological. He doesn't really care whether there are or aren't aliens. If there are, he points out, they seem to be leaving us pretty well alone.
Rather, he says, what interested him was the emotional meaning of people's ideas about aliens, UFOs and Area 51.
What does it feel like to believe that your real parents are extraterrestrials who abandoned you on Earth, and to realize that they aren't coming back for you?
How do we cope with the feeling of being left behind on Earth?
Little did Campbell know what an apt parallel this would be, years later, for his adventures with Family Court.
A day in the life
Family Court is the site of the gritty, everyday tragedy. Not the spectacular tragedy that leads to a murder trial or a medical-malpractice lawsuit, but a love turned sour, a child not safe at home, a teenager joyriding in a stolen car. Here the state must sort out the chaos of people's inability to get along.
Felix and Latonya stand on opposite sides of a courtroom, facing the blonde, black-robed hearing master, Patricia Doninger.
Felix, a tall, thin man with a shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses, wants a protective order to keep Latonya, his former girlfriend, away from him. "I've been trying to get this girl out of my life for three years," he says. "She has no respect for the law."
He claims Latonya has broken into his house when he's not there. The legal back-and-forth between the pair has been going on since 2002, with protective orders in both directions.
Latonya's voice quivers when it is her turn to speak. A stout woman with a ponytail of ringlets, she says she had a drug problem, but she's getting help now. She acknowledges she broke in, but says it was only to get a uniform she had left there.
"He's a control freak," Latonya says, tears running down her cheeks. Felix, she says, has been holding her possessions hostage since their relationship ended.
Doninger hears both sides calmly, then makes her ruling. Latonya will collect her things from Felix, accompanied by a police escort. The protective order will continue, and Latonya is not to go within 25 yards of Felix, his home or his work for another year.
"Ma'am, I'm going to make a promise to you," Doninger says. "If you go to the residence again, it's going to be 25 days in jail for every violation."
Latonya is sobbing openly. Felix leaves the courtroom; the bailiff will keep Latonya in a holding area for several minutes after he leaves. It is standard practice to stagger the two parties' departures so they don't get into parking-lot altercations.
Doninger has spent seven years hearing protective orders against domestic violence, in all of their variety.
Ex-spouses shout accusations against each other in a dispute that seems to boil down to whether their 12-year-old son ought to be in gymnastics or football. A woman asks that the bowling alley where she plays in a league every Thursday be added to her protective order because her ex-boyfriend has allegedly been following her there.
In another courtroom, another hearing master tells a woman she cannot see her newborn baby because both mother and baby tested positive for methamphetamine at the hospital. In another courtroom, a hearing master is trying to scare some sense into a 15-year-old who was caught with a concealed weapon that also happened to be stolen.
"We evict people from their own homes, we take away their right to see their child, we tell them to stay away from their exes," Doninger said in an interview. "It's very personal, and people yell at each other a lot."
Ideally, she said, a Family Court justice can sort out a situation fairly -- meaning neither party is likely to be happy.
"People have the impression that I can make their lives OK -- I can make someone stop saying hurtful things, or make their emotional pain stop," Doninger said. "No court can do that. All I can do is start a process to end an abusive relationship, and hopefully help the victims empower themselves."
Cases such as Doninger's are the Family Court's bread and butter. To the individuals involved, nothing could be more momentous, but in the global scheme of things, each miserable tale is but a trifle. For this reason, the intimate, contentious goings-on of this courthouse rarely make it into the local media.
And yet many more Clark County residents come into contact with Family Court than with the downtown courthouse that hosts criminal trials and civil lawsuits. In the year 2004, 56,434 juvenile and family cases were filed -- far more than the 32,273 civil and criminal cases filed.
Hidden in plain sight
Family Court hearings were closed to the public until two years ago, when the Legislature opened some juvenile crime and child-abuse hearings.
"I am a strong believer that the public has a right to know what happens in its courts," Family Court Judge Gerald Hardcastle, who proposed the change, said.
"Public information is simply knowledge and good knowledge about the courts is always beneficial," Hardcastle said. "In an uninformed public, people tend to react to misunderstood circumstances."
Because the legislation was enacted recently and few people want to spend their free time at Family Court, the new law's effects have not been noticeable. This is Campbell's point: An open system might as well be closed unless someone is there to watch it.
"What has always been lacking in Family Court is good oversight," Campbell said. "It's the same as Area 51 -- a secret organization, with all the same problems of government secrecy. Kids can be really abused by the system, and no one sees it, no one knows.
"My intention is to turn the court into a more open entity."
The home page of FamilyCourtChronicles.com is topped with a Renaissance painting of the Judgment of Solomon, the biblical story in which the wise king mediated a dispute between two women who both claimed the same baby as their son.
Solomon, the story goes, decreed that the baby should be cut in half. When one of the women said she would give up the child rather than see it harmed, the king knew she was the true mother.
On Campbell's Web site, the painting is captioned, "A typical custody matter in Family Court."
The Web site includes several chapters of Campbell's observations of the courts, which he hopes to turn into a book; profiles of judges, lawyers, officials and other court personalities, and a Web log of local media coverage of Family Court-related issues.
The most entertaining section is the glossary, which effectively sums up Campbell's worldview. Some examples:
Those who have come into contact with Campbell at the court say they are not entirely sure what he's up to, but they are impressed by his approach.
"I think he is trying to get it right," Hardcastle said. "He has a good layman's understanding of the court based upon his efforts to watch what actually occurs ... I do not understand why he has focused on Family Court, but more than most, he seems truly interested in understanding how the court works."
Many self-styled Family Court activists have an ax to grind -- they see themselves as being wronged by the system, and they extrapolate broad conspiracy theories about the court as a whole. Campbell's point of view is more credible because it is based on careful observation, according to Hearing Master Stephen Compan, who hears juvenile criminal cases.
"There are people out on the fringes who are just disgruntled; he's not," Compan said. "We get such a negative reputation, but anyone who comes and observes with an open mind is going to see that we're trying."
Campbell's strength is his ability to observe from many perspectives and describe what he sees, Doninger said.
"He's such an excellent writer, and his observations are very realistic," Doninger said. "He doesn't slant it one way or the other. He's able to grasp the judges' side and the litigants' side. He can see the complexity."
Campbell has worked hard to create this impression of lack of bias. But in fact, it only takes a little bit of digging to hit the raw emotion underneath. Click the link on FamilyCourtChronicles.com labeled "Patricia," and you come face to face with a smiling, towheaded 4-year-old.
She is wearing a flowered turtleneck and looking over her shoulder at the camera, her expression one of contentedness and possibly mischief.
She is Campbell's lost child.
Like most people, Campbell was dragged unwillingly into the Family Court system.
He and his wife, a Rachel resident he met in his Area 51 days, were living in Las Vegas and running a bookstore. In 1998 they made the tough decision to become foster parents to her troubled cousin's 6-week-old daughter, a cherubic blonde baby named Patricia.
For nearly six years, the two were the only parents Patricia knew. From the child's first day with them, they expected they would adopt her permanently. But the paperwork dragged on and on; the Family Services Department caseworker wouldn't return their calls. Patricia's drug-addicted mother kept getting second and third chances, even as she lapsed repeatedly back into addiction.
In 2003, with their relationship long on the decline, Campbell's wife kicked him out of the house for good. Before long, both were accusing each other of abuse, and Patricia was back in the child protection system.
Campbell and his wife, who asked not to be named in this story, agree on these facts. Clark County Family Services Director Susan Klein-Rothschild said she could not confirm the details of confidential cases.
The two disagree on the reasons surrounding their divorce. Each says the other is to blame and calls the other cruel and manipulative, allegations that are best not hashed out in print.
Campbell and his wife do agree, however, that their attempt to adopt Patricia was too mired in red tape and that, as foster parents who raised her from babyhood, they should have had more of a say in the case.
One of the things Campbell hopes to call attention to in Family Court is what he sees as a lack of foster parent rights.
As required by their divorce settlement, Campbell continues to pay the mortgage on their house. This means he can't afford a place of his own on the income he makes with his online books-and-maps business. He lives out of his van, his inventory stashed in storage lockers, sleeping in the desert under the stars. After a brief idyll as a more or less conventional family man, the Desert Rat has returned to his habitat.
He has not seen Patricia in nearly two years. He recently got word she had been adopted by her new foster family.
The thought of her makes him cry hot, unwilled, out-of-character tears for a man who likes to keep an ironic distance.
It is clear that he took up Family Court as a subject as a way to make sense of Patricia's case -- a way to understand what kind of system would beg people to take in a suffering child, then discard them.
But these days, Campbell's project has also become a way of forgetting about Patricia, it seems.
It is too late to do anything to get Patricia back, and he knows it. He admits that, as a divorced, homeless man, he wouldn't be able to care for her properly anyway.
So he has replaced Patricia with hundreds of other children -- children for whom it is not too late, and whose pain he can empathize with without his own pain getting in the way.
Campbell has a hard time defining his goals with the Family Court project. He says he hopes the Web site will help others going through Family Court put their experiences in context, and will create public accountability for court proceedings by bringing them out into the open. He also hopes to be an activist in certain cases and for general changes he believes could improve the system.
But in many ways, the project seems a pure product of Campbell's compulsion to get to the bottom of things, especially secret things, and his extraordinary tenacity. Once fascinated by something and presented with a way in, he can't help himself. He can't stop until he's cataloged every detail.
Campbell recalls the day he discovered that many Family Court hearings were open to the public. "It was the whole Area 51 system -- totally closed, decisions that can't be questioned -- but suddenly there was an opening," he said.
He went to the next hearing on Patricia's case and asked to sit in. At first the bailiff told him the courtroom was closed, but Campbell appealed to Hardcastle and was admitted.
From then on, he was hooked. He began spending one or two days a week in the courtrooms of Family Court.
He never mentions Patricia's case when he haunts Family Court these days. "She's just one of many children -- I have a mission to all of them," he said.
"I've been sent by the aliens to explore this planet, to explore the extremes of human experience," Campbell explained. "They must have sent me to Family Court, because it's the next Area 51."
Molly Ball can be reached at 259-8814 or at firstname.lastname@example.org