With all eyes watching: Amid tragic courthouse shooting, Bailey comes through

 Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey answers a question during a news conference Monday night in a downtown St. Joseph parking lot. Bailey said the third news conference on Monday was the hardest to do. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)


Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey answers a question during a news conference Monday night in a downtown St. Joseph parking lot. Bailey said the third news conference was the hardest to do. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — In a matter of minutes, the parking lot behind Horizon Bank in downtown St. Joseph filled with cameras and reporters eager for word on what took place a few blocks over.

The Berrien County Courthouse was surrounded by police cars and officers carrying automatic weapons. Two helicopters continued to fly over the Twin Cities area as traffic was diverted around a two-block radius.

People from inside the courthouse were being slowly escorted out of the courthouse in tears. Word spread fast that there had been a shooting in the courthouse and some might be dead.

Over the next seven hours of confusion and dread, Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey held three news conferences to describe what had befallen two colleagues and friends.

“It was a very stressful day from the beginning to the end,” Bailey said. “It’s still very stressful. Our deputies are trained to escort inmates in the jail and in the courthouse. On this given day, an inmate overpowered one of our deputies and did a terrible thing. We are now suffering and still piecing everything together.”

With several cameras and digital recorders trained on his every word, Bailey gave as much information as he could. Each news conference Monday grew in size until the 9 p.m. convergence fully encircled Bailey and the other officers that stood at his side.

It was from that asphalt parking lot, where the temperature was in the mid 90s, where Bailey revealed court officers Joseph Zangaro and Ronald Kienzle were shot to death by an inmate who overpowered one of his deputies. Other officers returned fire and killed the attacker, who would later be identified as Larry Darnell Gordon of Coloma.

Bailey was sitting in his car along Main Street in Benton Harbor when he got the call. He said their deaths began to sink in when he made it to the third floor of the courthouse.

Unlike most who were close to the two court officers, Bailey had to go through the grieving process on live TV.

Earlier in Bailey’s career, a state trooper was killed on a routine traffic stop in Shoreham. Bailey, who was then 24, said no training can prepare a person for when a fellow officer goes down.

“Law enforcement officers take that oath to serve and protect,” Bailey said in a Wednesday interview. “We go in harm’s way. We don’t think about our lives, we think about others. When people are running out, we’re running in.”

Support all around

Upon Bailey’s chest throughout the news conferences was his badge, which was accompanied by a black band that wrapped around the gold shield. The church bell across the street chimed as each hour flew by. Nearly every police agency in Southwest Michigan had an officer on scene for support.

As he approached the media for the last time Monday, Bailey said he kept thinking about Kienzle and Zangaro’s families and how their hearts were going to break.

“It was very hard, very emotional talking about my two friends,” he said. “Just trying to give accurate information was hard with so much going on. I was trying to be short and detailed, but we were all exhausted. That third press conference was the hardest. (I) asked the good Lord for help.”

Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said he could tell Bailey was having a hard time during the final news conference. That’s when Heit stepped in to reiterate what Bailey originally said when reporters continued to ask about the inmate.

The cameras were recording as Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey holds one of three news conferences Monday in a parking lot in downtown St. Joseph. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

The cameras were recording as Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey holds one of three news conferences Monday in a parking lot in downtown St. Joseph. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Bailey left the courthouse around midnight, but took Monday’s events home with him.

With a few hours of sleep, Bailey held another news conference at 7 a.m. Tuesday with more updates from the shooting and how it occurred.

The sheriff’s office helped with emails and calls that came pouring in from across the country. TV networks and newspapers called Bailey and his office the next few days.

In the days following the courthouse shooting, Bailey received calls from sheriffs, police chiefs, the state attorney general’s office, congressmen and senators in Washington, D.C., with messages of condolences and encouragement.

It will be awhile until things return to normal, but Bailey said he and his staff are doing their best to get by.

“We’re trying to heal and are praying for the families,” Bailey said. “We talked about what occurred and told everyone not to hold anything in. We brought in counselors to speak to employees. This is not just short term, it will take some time.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on July 14, 2016)

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