One year after tragic courthouse shooting, friends and coworkers move forward
ST. JOSEPH, Mich. -- One year ago, the Berrien County Courthouse became a crime scene.
The courthouse is now sacred ground for the men and women who work there each day. Many say they’re like a family here, so the shock of shots being fired inside and inside a place where justice is normally served, still has them dumbfounded as they remember their two coworkers and friends who lost their lives here that day.
“Joe and Ron were wonderful people,” said Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey. “Sometimes evil wins and we lose, and on that given day, evil won and we lost two wonderful people.”
Like a drummer, a courthouse follows a beat.
Joe Zangaro started it each morning by greeting people at the door.
“People from the public, jurors, lawyers, coworkers, everybody – and you just kind of got used to it,” explained Gary Bruce, Chief Judge of the Berrien County Trial Courts.
He was the first one you saw, while 6’7” Ron Kienzle was hard to miss.
“If there was a potluck or a lunch or somebody brought in cookies or something, he knew how to find it on any floor,” said Judge Bruce.
July 11, 2016 was part of the routine.
Judge Bruce said, “It was an ordinary day. It was a quiet day.”
Joe made his rounds as security supervisor.
“He and I nodded, acknowledged each other. He went over and talked to my bailiff, Dean Kugle, and then he left and that was the last time I saw him alive. 15 minutes later he was dead,” said Bruce as he remembered the fallen deputy.
“I was in a patrol car on Main Street in Benton Harbor when I heard the call come in from the courthouse that there were shots fired,” recalls Bailey.
Rick Lull, Berrien County Court Security Supervisor explained, “We thought we were going to a scuffle, and of course it ended up turning into a gun fight.”
It was chaos in the courthouse.
“It was, ‘Get in the bathroom. Lock the door. I’m locking you in here. Don’t come out.’ And he said, ‘This is bad,’” said Judge Bruce.
Shots rang out within seconds.
Then-bailiff, Rick Lull, was in the middle of it all.
“There were hostages all over the place, so I didn’t know if anyone was wounded or not. I’m looking to help somebody. That’s when I got the radio call that Joe was down,” said Lull.
Joe had been hit.
Lull continued, “So I was there, yelling at Joe to come back to us. You always hope against hope that you can say something and bring him back. And, like I said, there were two other people already there working on him. And at that point, I went through another door and that’s when I found Ron, and started doing CPR on him also.”
Two seasoned law enforcement veterans – respected and loved by the community they served for decades – killed.
“It was like I was in a fog. How did this happen? I can’t believe it’s going on,” said Sheriff Bailey.
Lull described the worst part. “[The worst part], of course, was finding my friends and coworkers Joe and Ron dead.”
“The shock of it. I still remember just exactly what that felt like. Just complete shock that those guys got killed,” recalled Judge Bruce.
Through vigils, walks, and funerals attended by thousands, Michiana and the nation began to mourn.
“Two days after this happened, my secretary came in and brought the mail. And I had a stack, probably nearly a foot high, of letters. And it just kept coming. Day after day after day; got hundreds of them, all over the United States,” said Bruce.
One year later, what has changed?
“What has changed is that I got deputies back,” Bailey said.
Now there are three deputies to a courthouse, two officers always moving an inmate and new restraints for when they’re out of their cell.
Lull explained, “Waistband belts. We cuff them to the belt. They have very limited range of movement. That makes a huge difference.”
The community stepped up, raising more than $50,000 for new bulletproof vests, gun holsters, and gun lights.
(Sheriff Paul Bailey/Berrien County Sheriff)
“When this tragedy happened, they were right there,” said Sheriff Bailey. “They served people. They loved doing their job. They loved being police officers.”
Their legacies, now honored on this memorial in St. Joe, are a reminder of how precious life is.
“These guys, they were there, and then like that they were gone. And nobody expected it and it was so shocking. And it just makes you reevaluate your own life and what’s important in life,” Judge Bruce said.
Bruce notes a lot of friendships were formed inside the courthouse in the weeks and months after the shooting.
And for Lull, who’s now security supervisor, says he still looks forward to coming to work each day because of the people.