On September 13, James Ray Palmer rode his motorcycle to the Crawford County courthouse in Van Buren, Arkansas. He carried three semi-automatic handguns with him, along with an AR-15 style rifle. He wore a tactical vest holding several magazines full of ammunition for his various firearms, with everything apparently concealed under a long duster coat. All reports indicate that Palmer went to the courthouse that day to kill Judge Gary Cottrell, who presided over Palmer’s divorce case and subsequent child custody hearing . . .
The judge wasn’t in, so Palmer ranged over the second and first floors of the courthouse, shooting into every door with a sign that read “judge.” Fortunately, Palmer managed to wound only one person, Judge Cottrell’s secretary. She was hit in the leg; the wound was not life-threatening. Palmer then exited the courthouse, and fought a gun battle with local law enforcement until they managed to shoot him twice, in the lower abdomen and in the head.
During most elections, I vote early (but not often) at the Crawford County courthouse. Every year, my wife winds up going to this same courthouse to once again clarify our property taxes–our property was bought by the previous owner in three different chunks, so we usually get three separate tax bills with different amounts instead of just one.
I cannot count how many times in the last 11 years I have visited this place, parked near it, or walked along the sidewalks bordering the courthouse lawn. In fact, this very morning, I drove through the same intersection you see at the beginning of the video, only I turned left to cross the Arkansas River bridge, instead of continuing straight ahead to the courthouse.
Here are some things that I get out of the dashcam video, along with the various news reports.
Violence can happen at any time and at any place. No place is exempt. This is a courthouse, frequented by armed police. Who would ever think that a man would choose to commit a public shooting at a court house that is literally right across the street from the county sheriff’s department? You can see the sheriff’s department building in the video as the officer’s car barrels down the street, just as he pauses to let the SUV go by, before he pulls into his final parking spot. Inside Crawford County, you cannot find any location with more armed police officers in such close proximity.
James Ray Palmer deliberately chose to attack this location so that officers would kill him. He texted a relative to say he was going to kill himself that day, and tried to burn his own house down with incendiary devices timed to go off after he’d left his driveway on his bike. Only some of his devices didn’t work, and the house was only partially damaged, not destroyed by fire. But the man came to this place on purpose so that he would die.
The situation is very rapid and very fluid. Even though you can’t see much in the video, listen to the sound of shots fired at and actually striking the patrol car. Listen to how many shots are fired. Listen for the urgency but clarity in the officers’ voices as they communicate over the radio.
The thing that gets to me the most are the silences in the recording. What is happening during the silences between the bursts of shots? Who is maneuvering to where? Who is taking cover behind what? You can hear one officer telling somebody else to get down behind the car.
How much ammo is enough? You cannot know this in advance, but more is always better. Palmer fired between 70 and 90 total shots inside and outside the courthouse. If you listen to the recording, at the 1:57 mark, you can hear one officer say, “All I got is one mag.” You can hear the trepidation in his voice, as he realizes that just one magazine of ammunition might not be enough for this nightmarish scenario.
When bad things happen, lots of folks will have no clue what’s going down. Even though the angle of the camera doesn’t show the actual shooting, it shows something else that blows my mind.
At the 2:28 mark, right in the middle of the gun battle on the courthouse lawn, a dark minivan drives down Main Street, right to left, directly in front of the courthouse. I wonder who was in it, and did they happen to actually notice the gunfight going on less than 50 yards away?
As soon as I got a text message from my brother about the shooting I called my wife who was out and about town, to make sure she wasn’t anywhere near the courthouse. I didn’t want her to drive upon the scene with our son in the car, unaware that a gun battle was raging on the courthouse lawn.
I try to be aware of my surroundings at all times. But now, every time I vote in an election, or go see about my property taxes, I’ll have a whole other set of images and sounds in my mind as I pull up to the county courthouse.