STEUBENVILLE, Ohio – A judge was ambushed Monday morning as he walked toward the Jefferson County Courthouse, and the judge and a probation officer returned fire, killing the suspect, officials said.
Steubenville city manager James Mavromatis said Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr. was shot as he walked outside the courthouse shortly after 8 a.m. The judge was armed and returned fire, firing at least five shots, according to Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla. A probation officer fired an unknown number of shots. The suspect, identified as Nathaniel Richmond, fired five shots.
Bruzzese, 65, was flown to UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh and was said to be in stable condition after surgery.
Steubenville police, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI are investigating. The FBI is helping with the investigation, said Jefferson County prosecuting attorney Jane Hanlin, “because we asked them to.”
Richmond was hit three times by gunfire, the sheriff said. He is the father of Ma’lik Richmond, who was convicted in the 2012 rape of a 16-year-old girl from Weirton, W.Va. Ma’lik was a high school football player at the time. The case gained national attention after pictures from the scene were circulated on social media.
Hanlin said authorities do not see a connection between the shooting and the rape case. “This judge had nothing to do at all with that case,” she said. Ma’lik “never appeared in this judge’s courtroom for any reason at all.”
According to Sheriff Abdalla, video footage shows a vehicle with two occupants at the scene at 7:12 a.m. The vehicle left and came back about 7:30 a.m.
Bruzzese was on the sidewalk on Court Street, getting ready to come up to the steps, the sheriff said. The person authorities have identified as Richmond approached him and shot him at near-point blank range in the chest and then took off running toward the vehicle. It is not yet clear who fired the shots that killed the suspect.
The sheriff said there was “clear indication” that the shooter “laid in wait” for the judge to ambush him. “Thank God he’s not a good shot,” he said. The passenger in Richmond’s vehicle has not been identified and was questioned by police. Officials said Richmond had a criminal record and was a resident of Steubenville. Abdalla said that had the probation officer not been there, “this gentleman would have kept on shooting until he killed the judge.”
Hanlin agreed the probation officer’s actions were crucial. “In all likelihood, he probably saved the judge’s life,” she said.
Hanlin said Richmond was known to authorities: “There have been a number of cases involving Mr. Richmond throughout the past number of years, in this judge’s courtroom and in other judges’ courtrooms. Whether or not there’s a connection between any of those prior appearances in that courtroom and today’s action, we don’t know the answer to that yet.” She said Richmond had pending litigation but said it’s “too early for us to tell if there’s any connection between that lawsuit and what happened this morning.”
Mavromatis said that Bruzzese was talking after he was wounded. The city manager said later that the judge was “doing fine.” Later in the afternoon, Hanlin said the judge was in stable condition. “We do expect him to survive,” she said.
As of now, the second person in the car, who was a passenger, is not considered a suspect, the sheriff said.
“He didn’t get out,” the sheriff said, and may have been wounded in the leg by a ricochet. The passenger was at Trinity West Hospital and had been interviewed. He and Richmond apparently had been drinking the previous night, the sheriff said.
“It just hurts,” the sheriff said. “You have a judge shot in front of his courthouse. And that upsets me. This was an ambush and attempted murder on our judge.”
Abdalla said threats of retaliation for the killing of Richmond have been made. “I hope they don’t do that, because force will be met with force, period.”
The courthouse was closed for the day as local and state authorities secured the scene. Jefferson County Commissioner Thomas Graham said the courthouse would remain closed Tuesday, pending approval from the other two commissioners. He said the courthouse has video surveillance cameras and metal detectors on the inside.
“We may have to look into extra procedures on the outside,” he said. “We may have to escort people into the courthouse for the time being.”
Hanlin said: “We will obviously have added security at the courthouse as we’re working through this investigation.”
Officials said counselors will be at the courthouse Tuesday for employees who may have been affected by the shootings.
Bruzzese hears general and domestic relations cases as one of two judges in Jefferson County Common Pleas Court. The sheriff said the judge is an “avid sportsman. Hunter. Loves guns.” He said he asked the judge to start carrying a gun years ago because there’s “nut cases out there who want retaliation.”
Bruzzese has served on the court since 1997, according to Ohio Supreme Court records. He was re-elected in 2014 for another six-year term.
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