Today I die, gunman texted mom

He shot up courthouse, waited on lawn for police, sheriff says

Crawford County Courthouse building manager Junior Bing (left), with County Judge John Hall, describes the route James Ray Palmer took through the building.
Crawford County Courthouse building manager Junior Bing (left), with County Judge John Hall, describes the route James Ray Palmer took through the building.

— James Ray Palmer, the gunman who died in a shootout with police Tuesday outside the Crawford County Courthouse, text messaged his mother earlier to say “today’s the day. Today I’m going to die,” Sheriff Ron Brown said Wednesday.

The 48-year-old Palmer, who apparently set fire to his house Tuesday in Kibler and did not leave a note of explanation, died after police shot him in the head and torso, authorities said. During his 12-minute rampage, he wounded Vickie Jones, a judge’s case coordinator, who was released from a hospital Wednesday after being shot once in the leg. Van Buren police officer Dave Passen, among the officers who exchanged gunfire with Palmer, was treated and released for minor cuts from glass and shrapnel.

Van Buren Police Lieutenant Brent Grill shows a video that was recorded on a dashboard-mounted video recorder inside a Van Buren Police cruiser responding to Tuesday's shootout at the Crawford County Courthouse.

Crawford County Courthouse shooting

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Palmer fired 70 to 90 rounds throughout the historic courthouse and outside on the lawn, but no one else was injured.

Palmer never found the person who authorities said was his intended target — 60-year-old Circuit Judge Gary Cottrell, who presided over Palmer’s divorce about 10 years ago. By chance, Cottrell was at home Tuesday with a knee injury.

At least 50 other people were in the courthouse when the gunman passed through, officials said. “They did the best they could,” said Crawford County Judge John Hall. “They got in vaults, got under desks. They’re now visibly shaken, and they should be.”

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“I think he just missed,” Brown said. “I think the good Lord didn’t let his bullets hit.”

Palmer’s rifle also jammed repeatedly during the three to four minutes that he spent firing inside the courthouse before crossing the lawn to face police, Brown said.

Fort Smith lawyer Amanda Hart fled the courthouse after hearing shots and saw Palmer standing in a “Rambo-type pose” with his feet spread out.

“He came outside and was walking up and down the sidewalk like a guard, every three seconds firing a shot.”

With his back to Hart, he fired about 30 shots over a line of cars.

“He came out there looking for a scene,” Hart said. “He thought there would be officers out there. It was me and me only. So I got behind my car and hunkered down on the ground.”

Hart said she thinks Palmer saw her but that he fired over the line of cars instead of at her.

“In hindsight, I think he was waiting for cops to show up,” she said.

The shooting raised questions about security at the small-town courthouse, which has six entrances. Visitors usually come and go through most of the building without any security searches. On Wednesday, Brown and Hall announced that starting today they would close all entrances except one on Fourth Street and provide a deputy to check visitors.

“We felt secure,” Hall said. “Now that we know we’re vulnerable, we’ll pony up.”

Authorities acknowledge that they know little about Palmer, whom they believe lived alone and had no criminal history. They said he was divorced, and court records show a 2005 bankruptcy. His mother, Ann Palmer, had called the sheriff ’s office several weeks before the shooting to ask authorities to check on her son. When a deputy was en route, she called to cancel the check, Brown said.

B efore leaving home Tuesday, Palmer left incendiary devices that heavily damaged his house on Clear Creek Road about 8 miles east of Van Buren, Brown said. Emergency workers got a call about a fire at the house about 20 minutes before the shooting started, Brown said. The fire burned through the roof, though the house’s exterior walls were still intact Wednesday.

His mother called again Tuesday afternoon to say her son was threatening suicide. But that was minutes before Palmer rode up to the courthouse on his Kawasaki dirt bike and parked by the curb, authorities said. Telephone numbers listed for Palmer’s parents in Oklahoma have been disconnected. Public records of his divorce were not available Wednesday because the courthouse was closed.

His next-door neighbor, Carolyn Rozell, said Palmer had lived in the brown frame house for five or six years. She said she was surprised to learn that he was the gunman who had terrorized courthouse workers. She described him as a friendly man.

“He was nice and quiet,” Rozell said. “He was never any problem.”

She said she didn’t see Palmer much. He worked nights and usually returned home about 1:30 a.m., she said.

He would wave when she drove past if he was out in the yard, she said. At times, he would visit her and her husband, David. He usually wanted to talk about his motorcycle, which she described as huge and noisy.

“We always knew when he was leaving out or coming in,” Rozell said.

She never saw many people at Palmer’s home. He had a teenage son who would visit periodically, she said.

Another neighbor, Johnny Painter, said he never had any interaction with Palmer but that Palmer seemed friendly and would always wave when Painter drove past Palmer’s home.

“It’s such a sad deal that happened to a person who lived here,” Painter said.

Palmer worked at Bekaert Corp. in Van Buren, according to Arkansas Department of Labor records, but Bekaert officials in Van Buren wouldn’t comment Wednesday.

State records also show that he was licensed as a high-pressure boiler operator. Daniel Faulkner, a Labor Department attorney, said Palmer first applied for a license in 1999 and held it until 2008, when he let it lapse. Bekaert paid to renew his license this year. Based in Belgium, Bekaert makes steel cord for tire reinforcement and other applications.

Brown and Van Buren police Lt. Brent Grill described Tuesday’s events after talking to witnesses and watching videotape of what happened inside and outside the courthouse.

Palmer rode to the courthouse shortly after 3:30 p.m., parked beside a curb and walked casually without speaking to anyone through the main northeast door of the courthouse. No deputies were present, and no weapons were visible, though a courthouse worker almost immediately reported a suspicious person.

Palmer was dressed in a dark trench coat and a black utility vest. Under his coat was a compact, .223-caliber Kel Tec assault rifle with a pistol grip and at least two handguns, Brown said.

Videotape from inside the courthouse shows Palmer walking “casually, nonchalantly” along a hallway and turning left to climb three sections of stairs to the second floor, Brown said.

At the top, Palmer placed his motorcycle helmet on a half wall, took a few steps and peered into the courtroom of Cottrell. Court was not in session.

Palmer then turned to walk behind the open stairway and along a hallway to Cottrell’s office on the same floor. The half-glass door wasn’t locked. Videotape shows Palmer pulling out the assault rifle as if to shoot, then stopping because the gun didn’t work.

He stepped into a stairwell, worked with the weapon and scattered live rounds on the floor. After a short time, he stepped back to the judge’s door.

Though police said Tuesday that they were told that Palmer asked for the judge by name, after reviewing videotape and interviewing more witnesses Wednesday, they concluded that Palmer actually walked in firing, Brown said.

Jones was sitting at her desk and was hit before she could stand, police said. Palmer fled down a hallway and appeared to try to shoot in her direction, but the gun jammed again.

Courthouse workers pressed panic buttons installed in most offices and called 911 as soon as they heard shots.

After shooting Jones, Palmer walked back to the stairway and started down, Brown said. “He was in no hurry, looked like he had no worries in the world,” Brown said.

Palmer reloaded the rifle with 30-round magazines, but the weapon misfired more than two dozen times, Brown said. Brown didn’t know whether Palmer ever fired either of the two pistols he was carrying.

Brown said he believes that no one was killed because Palmer’s rifle repeatedly failed to feed.

About midway down the stairs, Palmer began firing dozens of rounds through office doors and walls as he headed toward the same entrance he used to enter the building. “By then, everybody in the courthouse had either evacuated or was locked in an office,” Brown said.

Palmer walked out the door and onto the lawn, and turned right toward his dirt bike. He slipped off his trench coat and appeared to wait for law enforcement officers to arrive. One of the first to respond was Van Buren detective Randy Allen in an unmarked car, followed by Passen in a police cruiser.

Authorities don’t know how many rounds Palmer fired at officers outside as he crossed the courthouse lawn and partially hid behind trees or cars. Passen’s police cruiser had three windows shot out and a flat front left tire on Wednesday, along with numerous bullet holes in the body.

A Van Buren police video shot from the dash of Passen’s car recorded dozens of shots fired and finally the words, “He’s down ... subject down, subject down.”

Van Buren police say they don’t know who fired the shots that killed Palmer. In addition to Passen, the officers involved in the gunbattle were Allen and Lt. Steven Stack. They are now on paid leave, Grill said.

Brown wouldn’t release the names of officers involved in the shootout.

Palmer’s actions on videotape and his message to his mother convinced Brown that the gunman’s intent was to die. “He’s not hiding,” Brown said. “He didn’t leave the premises. He pursued police. He told his mother, ‘Today’s the day.’”

Brown said he didn’t know how many times Palmer’s gun malfunctioned, but he counted at least 25 live rounds on the ground.

As of Wednesday, the weapon had not been testfired, so officers could only guess about why it jammed so frequently, Brown said. The misfires were unusual, he said.

“In a firefight, you see a gun malfunction once or twice, but as many times as that one did, no one was meant to be seriously hurt in Crawford County yesterday,” Brown said.

There are a number of reasons a semiautomatic weapon can malfunction, said Grover Crossland, resident agent in charge of the Little Rock field office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

A “double feed” happens when a spent casing isn’t ejected upon firing and a new round is chambered. Also, a spent casing may not be completely ejected and become lodged in the bolt, he said.

The weapon could have malfunctioned because it was dirty, the ammunition was corroded or the magazine springs were weak, Crossland said.

Poor-quality guns tend to misfire more often, he said, though 25 times is excessive.

“I’ve never heard of a case of a gun jamming that many times,” he said.

The Arkansas State Police is investigating the shooting but will not release information about the weapon or ballistics, spokesman Bill Sadler said.

Information for this article was contributed by Adam Wallworth and Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 09/15/2011