Bailiffs justified in shooting man who killed court officers

Larry Gordon shot and killed bailiffs Joseph Zangaro and Ron Kienzle in July

Berrien County Sheriff's Office Larry Gordon mugshot 071116
An undated mug shot of Larry Gordon. (Berrien County Sheriff's Office)

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. (WOOD) — Berrien County Courthouse bailiffs were justified in shooting and killing an inmate this summer after he stole a deputy’s gun and killed two other court officers, the county prosecutor has ruled.

Prosecutor Michael Sepic said in a Wednesday release that Larry Gordon was trying to escape on July 11 when he overpowered Deputy James Atterberry Jr. and stole his sidearm. Gordon then shot and wounded Atterberry and also fatally shot 61-year-old Joseph Zangaro, who was the chief of courthouse security, and bailiff Ron Kienzle, 63.

Berrien County bailiffs killed
Undated courtesy photos of Joseph Zangaro (left) and Ronald Kienzle (right) who were killed at the Berrien County Courthouse on July 11, 2016. (Courtesy Berrien County Administration)

According to the prosecutor’s account of the day, Gordon then took off through the courthouse, looking for an exit. He pushed past one deputy responding to Zangaro’s call for help, then took eight courthouse visitors and staff members hostage, herding them at gunpoint down a hall.

Gordon was stopped back a secured door and backtracked, still holding one of the hostages in front of him, by which time two more bailiffs arrived. They heard the first bailiff say, “He’s got a gun, he’s got a gun,” and then someone say “I’ve got hostages.” None of the bailiffs were named in the prosecutor’s release.

One of the bailiffs circled around to get behind Gordon. As he did so, he saw Gordon moving the gun up, according to the prosecutor’s release. The bailiff then fired three shots at Gordon. Gordon kept moving, so the bailiff fired three more times.

A second bailiff then opened fire, shooting at Gordon six times. Gordon fell and the bailiff approached. The bailiff said he saw Gordon, still handcuffed in the front, move the hand holding the gun, at which point he fired one more shot.

Gordon was shot twice in the chest, the prosecutor’s release said. One of the bullets passed through his left forearm before entering his chest and striking his heart. The second wound was on the lower on the right side of his chest.

The hostage was shot by one of the bailiffs’ bullets. She sustained non-life-threatening injuries.

Gordon had already fired all six shots in the .357 revolver he took from Atterberry by the time he took hostages, but Sepic said there’s no way the other bailiffs could have known that or whether he had another weapon. Sepic decided the bailiffs had reason to believe that Gordon was a threat to them, others and the general public and were justified in the use of deadly force. They will not face charges.

The prosecutor said he considered witnesses to the shooting, crime lab reports, photos, autopsy reports, courthouse video and letters written by Gordon in reaching his conclusion.

Police had arrested Gordon, 44, on April 20. He was originally wanted on an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor domestic violence, but when they got to his Coloma Township, they found he had been holding a 17-year-old girl in a shed on the property, giving her drugs in exchange for sex, sexually assaulting her and strangling her. That led to a slew of felony charges against him, including kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment, first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct, production of child pornography, and assault by strangulation. He was facing life in prison if convicted.

Other jail inmates told authorities that Gordon had said he “would not be able to do a lengthy prison sentence” and asked about the layout of the courthouse, the prosecutor said. Letters Gordon wrote before the incident — one of which is dated July 11 — also expressed his intention to escape. He gave those letters, sealed in an envelope, to another inmate on the morning of the incident and they weren’t passed along to authorities until after. The prosecutor says there was no wrongdoing by that other inmate who had the letters or by others who heard Gordon talking about escape.