‘Our hearts are torn apart,’ says sheriff after deadly courthouse shootings

Law enforcement officers salute the bodies of two bailiffs shot and killed by inmate Larry Gordon as they are removed from the Berrien County Courthouse in St. Joseph on Monday July 11, 2016.   American flags were draped over them.

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. — A heart-broken sheriff asked for prayers Monday after a jail inmate killed two bailiffs and wounded a sheriff’s deputy and a civilian before being shot to death inside the Berrien County Courthouse in downtown St. Joseph.

“Our hearts are torn apart,” Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said. “They were our friends. They were my colleagues. I’ve known them for over 30 years, so it’s a sad day. This is a great community and I’ve been overwhelmed with calls in Texas supporting us. It’s a tragedy. You never know when something like this is going to happen.”.

The two bailiffs were identified as retired Michigan State Police Lt. Joseph Zangaro and retired Benton Township police Sgt. Ron Kienzle.

Larry Darnell Gordon, 44, was identified late Monday as the Berrien County Jail inmate who killed the bailiffs, wounded two other people and held citizens hostage for a short time before being killed by police.

Sheriff: 2 bailiffs, suspect dead in Michigan courthouse shooting.

Gordon’s ex-wife said she believes he was trying to escape because he was desperate to see his family.

“He’s not a monster,” Jessica Gordon, told the Detroit Free Press.

The tragedy began unfolding about 2:25 p.M. On the third floor of the courthouse, which is next to the sheriff’s department and county jail, Bailey confirmed at a Monday press conference.

At a news conference Monday night, Bailey said Gordon was in custody, but “doesn’t appear” to have been handcuffed when he was being escorted toward the courtroom, though he was being held on “several felony charges,” but didn’t elaborate.

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At some point on his way toward the courtroom, while still in an area closed to the public, Gordon made his attempt to escape: shot the deputy, shot and killed two bailiffs, then went into “the court area” and “took several hostages” including both court employees and residents for about five minutes, according to Bailey.

He did not elaborate on the hostage situation, but said that it ended when the suspect tried to escape through a door — and moments later he was confronted by two bailiffs and was shot and killed. A woman was also non-critically injured by gunfire.

“The fight took place right outside the holding cell at the courthouse as they were getting him out of the holding cell,” Bailey said. “They secured the door, the inmate starting fighting with the deputy and bailiff and that’s when the gun was able to be taken away.He was trying to escape and that’s when he fatally wounded the two bailiffs.”.

The sheriff’s deputy and injured civilian were in stable condition at Lakeland Regional Hospital Monday evening, Bailey said.

Gordon was taken down by two other bailiffs who came to render aid, along with several other officers. It wasn’t immediately known who actually shot and killed him, Bailey said. Ten bailiffs were working at the time of the shooting, according to Bailey, who said it’s not clear how many shots were fired.

Bailey said two bailiffs usually transport inmates between their holding cells and the courtrooms. Bailey said investigators are reviewing camera footage from the courthouse to determine how Gordon was able to grab the gun.

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“All the detectives are piecing that together from all the cameras we have at the courthouse,” Bailey said. “That’s what we’re going to determine, how they were escorting him. They do it many times a day. … Once we have more information, we’ll know how he was removed from the cell and being taken into the courtroom.”.

Witnesses and employees who worked on the third floor of the building were being interviewed by investigators, Bailey said, adding that the courthouse will be closed Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who was briefed about the killings before the news conference, said he traveled to Berrien County to offer his support.

“I just want to be here to support a terrible day in a wonderful community,” Snyder said. “This was an awful act to have happen today. I want to reinforce the fact that we’re being supportive in every way possible.”.

Referencing the recent killings in Dallas that left five officers dead last week, Snyder acknowledged that the past week has been “a particularly tough time for law enforcement.”.

“I ask that everyone reach out and try to be supportive of law enforcement across the state and across the country if possible in a difficult case like this,” Snyder said. “This is a terrible event to have happen and we need to rally together to support one other. We should all be standing together.”.

Jessica Gordon said she learned of her ex-husband’s death about 5:15 p.M. Monday when she was visited by a chaplain and police. She said they were respectful and comforting.

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Gordon, who was wearing a wedding ring on her left ring finger, wouldn’t discuss the reason her ex-husband was in jail. She said they got divorced earlier this year, but he was very close to his 6-year-old daughter Cheyenne. She said she chose to keep his last name because its his daughter’s last name and they, as a family, had always been a team. She said they had been married 19 years.

Berrien County Commissioner Mac Elliott, who also is an attorney, was in the courthouse Monday before the shootings. “It’s just surreal, I was in the building today for matters I had on the civil docket … And I still can’t believe it,” he said.

Elliott described the victims as fine individuals who were good at their jobs and at dealing with the public.

“Professional, always courteous, just great people. I can tell you they will be sorely missed,” Elliott said, noting that he hopes God gives their families the strength to bear the unbearable. He also said he hopes God has found a “very warm place” for the perpetrator.

Elliott, who said he chairs the commission committee overseeing the court, said the incident was not caused by anyone bringing something into the building. He said metal detectors and a machine to scan items coming into the building are used at the courthouse.

“There was no failure of the security system in terms of screening individuals coming into the building. That all worked the way it was supposed to work,” Elliott said.

Contributing: Daniel Bethencourt, Eric D. Lawrence, Elisha Anderson, Gina Damron and Michelle Crandall, Detroit Free Press. Follow Katrease Stafford on Twitter: @KatreaseS_freep.

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