One Angry Man: The Tarrant County Courthouse Shooting

courthouse lighting

It doesn’t look like a crime scene. The old Tarrant County Courthouse stands guard over the Trinity River, marking the visual divide between historic old North Main, home to some of the best Tex-Mex you’ll ever eat, and South Main Street’s maze of government buildings that cozy up to Sundance Square with its newer, chic eateries and shopping. Built in 1895, the pink granite Grande Dame of the downtown scene was designed to resemble the Capitol Building in Austin with rotundas and a large dome. As newer courthouses were built to house criminal, civil and family courts, the plan was to demolish the old building and connect North and South Main. Fortunately, the old building was saved that fate. The clock tower on the dome still marks the hours. Now days, courts have all moved into the newer buildings, with the exception of one Justice of the Peace court. Instead the building houses the county clerk’s office, land records, and a county law library. But in 1992, it was still home to the 2nd Court of Appeals.

Chris Marshall, 41 was Chief of the Appellate Section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and he was there on July 1, 1992 to present a case later that morning. With Chris was a young appellate attorney, Steve Conder, 27.

A three judge panel was on the bench: Clyde Ashworth, John Hill, and David Farris. Dan Hollified, a criminal defense attorney stood at the podium, arguing a case before the panel.  Outside, on a window behind the judge’s bench, Tim McGinty, 41, a contract painter was perched on a hanging ladder.

John Edwards, 32, a civil trial attorney, entered the staircase around 10:00 am that morning. He was due in the court for a later case.

About that same time, Toby Goodman, a lawyer and state representative left the appellate courtroom. He went down the stairs and into the hallway.

Also present in the court room was another lawyer named George Lott who  sat in a conservative blue suit with his briefcase at his feet. At the time, Lott was no longer a practicing attorney, although no one in the room realized it. There were several who thought he looked familiar, but that’s the way it is in the legal community. You see the same faces over and over, some friends, many nodding acquaintances. The legal community in Tarrant County is relatively small for a county of more than a million people. The pool of litigators is even smaller, but cordial.

courthouse interior

Lott had been at the courthouse just the day before and the only person surprised to see him was the attorney who had represented Lott’s wife in their divorce, Douglas Wright.
As divorces went, Lott’s was exceptionally messy and difficult. Lott’s wife was also an attorney and was fearful of him. His anger and disdain for her, for the entire proceeding bled over into an enmity for her attorney. Wright’s father had been a judge and Lott made derogatory comments about him during the custody trial until Wright objected and Lott was ordered by judge Mary Ellen Hicks to refrain from discussing Wright’s father in front of the jury.

Lott represented himself. He had to because all three of his prior attorneys had resigned, unable to work with him. The jury awarded custody of the child to his mother. Lott was convinced of wrongdoing and collusion on the part of the judge, Wright and his ex-wife. More likely the jury was alarmed by his obvious anger and instability. In typical narcissist fashion, Lott blamed everyone else for this. The problem couldn’t be with him. Clearly, the judge was against him. There was a conspiracy and everyone was in on it. He was robbed of his “right” to his son.

Money wasn’t an object for Lott. He had inherited half a million dollars from his grandparents. He only practiced law from 1981 to 1988 where he voluntarily quit his practice and moved from Fort Worth to an Arlington apartment complex near I-20. It’s unclear what he did with his time. He owned a boat and was seen fishing or just walking around. He listed his occupation as “computer programmer” but does not seem to have been working for anyone.

Lott’s ex-wife moved to Illinois with their son. Lott traveled back and forth to visit the child until new allegations surfaced. The son, whose name I’ve chosen not to use here although it is in public documents, made an outcry of sexual abuse. The allegations– which included sodomizing the child with objects–were investigated. In another trial, Lott lost his visitation rights due to the abuse. An Illinois grand jury indicted him for Aggravated Sexual Assault of a child. That criminal trial was set for July 20 1992.

The week before the Tarrant County attack, Lott sent a threatening letter to prosecutors in Illinois and called the court clerk to complain that evidence was being withheld in his case. He called Bob Ray Sanders, a radio host at KLIF-AM and spoke for about 4 minutes. He rambled on about the courts and how they were all against him and how you couldn’t get justice in Tarrant County. He said “they cost me my life.”

He was a stranger to his neighbors. One neighbor, when interviewed about Lott said, “I’ve seen this guy hundreds of times, and he’s never said a word… He was really, really a strange guy. He was like a zombie. No one around here will have any buddy-buddy stories about him.”

courthouse lit

It was after the clock tower chimed 10:00 on July 1, 1992,  when Lott got to his feet and removed his Glock 17 9mm from his briefcase and began shooting. Judge Farris dove under the judges bench. Judges Ashworth and Hill were both shot. Ashworth was seriously wounded.

Dan Hollifield fell to the floor and crawled away. Later he said it was “just astounding to look around a see a man standing with his arm out, holding a gun.”

Chris Marshall was fatally wounded with several shots to the chest and Conder was injured. Lott emptied his gun, then he calmly reloaded and continued shooting.

McGinty, the contractor had just climbed down from his ladder perch for a break when bullets zinged through the window right where he had been. If he hadn’t grown thirsty on that hot July day, he would likely have been a sixth victim.

All over the courthouse, the shots echoed. One survivor later remarked that it sounded like fireworks going off inside the building. Next door to the Court of Appeals, Judge Weaver hid in his office restroom. A briefing clerk hid in his closet. Bookkeepers locked their doors. Some hid under desks.

Courthouse inside

Lott calmly finished shooting. Was he satisfied he had done enough damage to make his point? He went down the stairs where he encountered John Edwards, an attorney  for the prestigious firm Haynes and Boones where he specialized in corporate litigation. John had a wife and daughters.

Julie Level, an elections office employee heard John begging for his life and yelling for help. Without speaking, Lott executed John there in the stairwell.  He ran down the hall, past Toby Goodman, the attorney who had just finished his court business.

Lott exited the building, got in his van and drove around for a bit. Meanwhile, police swarmed the building. A massive manhunt was underway involving local police, the sheriff’s department, the FBI with helicopters and every means available, but it was unnecessary. Lott wanted to be known for his actions. He was making a statement.

At 4:15 pm, Lott walked into the lobby of WFAA,-TV in Dallas. He signed in with his own name and asked to speak with Tracy Rowlett. For years, Rowlett had been the face of the channel eight evening news.  There was always something warm, but professional about Rowlett that made him extremely popular.

Rowlett and an assignments manager interviewed Lott on camera for around thirty minutes. Lott calmly explained what he had done. In his mind, the Second Court of Appeals was wrong to deny him a new trial on his custody case.

“It’s a horrible, horrible thing I did today,” Lott said. “I have sinned and am certainly wrong, but someone needs to look into what happened to me…I basically went in the courtroom and sat for a while and then got up and shot apparently five people…I was shooting at the court, essentially, but other people got in the way or did things. You have to do a horrible, horrible thing to catch people’s attention.”

Lott was a classic narcissist. This was all about him. People just “got in the way.” It didn’t matter that he was destroying lives. Little girls would grow up without their father. Survivors would forever feel vulnerable. Lott had a point to make and that was all that mattered.

“He feels terribly wronged by the justice system,” Jim Owens a prosecutor from Illinois told the Dallas Observer. ”What happened today didn’t surprise any of us. In fact, I think it could have just as easily happened here.”

Lott explained to Rowlett that he had a  gun behind his back and more ammo in his sock. He calmly gave those items to Rowlett and surrendered to Dallas police.

Lot arrest

Tarrant County had 32 walk-through metal detectors, but they were all in storage. Spurred by courthouse violence that had occurred around the nation, the County Commissioners purchased the items, but never installed them because none of the courts specifically asked for them. One judge claimed she had been told that the personnel necessary to operate those detectors would be too expensive. There were armed bailiffs in the building, but not specifically in each courtroom. The bailiff closest to the attack never responded.

Courtrooms are safer now. You can’t get in without a thorough screening. Each courtroom has multiple armed bailiffs. There are panic buttons strategically placed around each courtroom. Court house staff regularly goes through “active shooter” training. None of those address the elephant in the room: how much damage can be done by one angry man with a gun.

George Lott represented himself at trial. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. He refused to appeal his sentence and was put to death eighteen months later in what remains the speediest execution in modern Texas history.

Lott book in

Mass killings aren’t new.

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother with a knife, then he went to the University of Texas and climbed the tower with a rifle. His rampage ended with sixteen dead and thirty-one injured.

Going back even farther, in 1949 Howard Unruh went through Camden, New Jersey in what would come to be known as the “Walk of Death.” Unruh walked through his neighborhood shooting everyone he saw. He murdered thirteen people that day including two children. His youngest victim was just two-years old.

Unruh is the first known mass gun crime in U.S. history, but before Unruh, there was Andrew Kehoe. Kehoe was a treasurer on the school board in Bath, Michigan. He was angry over taxes so May 18th, 1927, Kehoe rigged his farm and out-buildings to explode with his wife inside. He also rigged the school house. He parked outside and detonated the building killing most within, including the children. He then climbed back into his truck and blew up himself killing another six people who were in the blast radius. He killed 45 people and injured another 58.

Although the mass killings aren’t new, they seem to be occurring with greater frequency and with alarmingly large numbers. Gun violence has actually become rarer, but deadlier. While individual gun crimes are growing fewer, mass murder is on the rise.

Gun control sounds like a sensible solution, except how and where do you draw the lines and how do you put back the genie into the bottle? I grew up in rural Texas in a house where guns were a fact of life. My father was in law enforcement and always had guns. My husband and eldest son own guns. Everyone where I live hunts or has guns for protection. Coyotes are a real concern. A neighbor’s game camera recently showed a mountain lion.

Guns are everywhere. I’ve seen estimates ranging between three and four hundred million guns which are privately owned in America. How can we ban something that is everywhere? Every drug case I handle with large amounts of drugs? There are guns in those cars and most of the guns are stolen or already illegal. The bad guys will have guns. The Texas church shooter shouldn’t have been allowed to have a gun. He was already banned but all it took was someone not following through with paperwork and there he was, one angry man with a gun.

I don’t have an answer, but I join the voices of those frustrated by the violence.

Something has to change.