Watervliet Schools review background check policy; Investigation complete for Courthouse shooting
By Annette Christie
It was not long after the reports came out revealing the identity of the Berrien County Courthouse shooter that a connection was made with our local area. Larry Darnell Gordon resided in Coloma and happened to be a volunteer in the school where his child attended. Watervliet Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Schooley confirmed that Gordon, who volunteered in the classroom, had been put through the district’s process of checking volunteers, however, the tool that the district, and many other districts use, did not provide all of the convictions that Gordon had on his record. The system that the district uses, allows for a criminal background check in the State of Michigan. Federal offenses and crimes in other states are not detected. The crimes that did show up for him were not violent crimes. Schooley said that volunteer forms are completed by those that would like to help in the school. They are run through the system provided by the Michigan State Police and anyone that comes back with a violent crime was not approved for volunteering. Schooley said that since this incident occurred, he has been researching and will continue to do so to find the best solution for the district. Schooley told a group of community members at a community forum on Tuesday night that the only way to get the most thorough background check of volunteers would be by fingerprinting. “This is the only tool that gives us a true picture of someone’s criminal history,” Schooley said. This is the same system used to check all employees in a school district. Schooley told the large group of parents and community members, that whether or not volunteers are fingerprinted is not the question but rather, how far does the district go. The administration had already comprised a list of volunteer positions that must be fingerprinted: office, lunchroom, field trip, teacher assistant, and classroom volunteer. Areas in question were when adults are present at drop off and after school pick up, various classroom events like holiday parties, and eating lunch with their child. A dialogue was started whereby those in attendance presented other ideas on what they would like to see in the district, what other volunteers should be screened, and even a possible volunteer training day. With this valuable input Schooley and the administration will continue to formulate a new procedure that he would like to have in place for this fall with fingerprinting being a certainty. Watervliet Police Chief Tim Sutherland said that he thought the fingerprinting of volunteers in the schools was a great idea. It was his recommendation to the district that anyone who came back with a felony conviction should not be allowed to volunteer, however, he recommended an appeal process where a potential volunteer could present a case for why they should be approved (perhaps in explaining the circumstances regarding the conviction, or it is a non-violent crime which occurred many years earlier). Investigation complete; Killer planned to break free or die trying Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey held a press conference on Friday, July 22 to reveal the investigation findings of the tragic events in the Berrien County Courthouse just 11 days earlier. Bailey asked those in attendance to continue to keep the families of Joe Zangaro and Ron Kienzle in our thoughts and prayers. “This incident has had a lasting impact on us all and as we begin to move forward, we remember the sacrifice that both Joe and Ron made while protecting others,” Sheriff said. He stated that as Berrien County looks at the incident they are evaluating what occurred and what can be done to try and ensure that something like this never happens again. He said that he, Berrien County Trial Court Chief Judge Gary Bruce, Trial Court Administrator Brian Ray, and key court security personnel have already met to look at ways that they can learn from what happened and make necessary changes as they are identified. “We are committed to doing what is needed and have received support from our county administration as well,” Bailey said. Bailey stated, “I want to be clear that this tragic event was caused by the actions of one man. The criminal and heinous actions of inmate Larry Gordon caused injury to Deputy Atterberry and a citizen. Larry Gordon himself is responsible for the deaths of Joe Zangaro and Ron Kienzle.” He added, “We need to commend Bailiffs Milt Russel and Rick Lull along with the other bailiffs and local law enforcement officers that quickly responded and courageously risked their own lives to neutralize Gordon and save countless others from harm.” Bailey then turned the briefing over to Detective Lieutenant Greg Sanders who was the lead investigator on the Berrien County Homicide Task Force. Sanders explained the timeline of the events that occurred and used video footage and audio from the Courthouse to corroborate the timeline. Gordon was scheduled to appear in Berrien County Trial Court Judge Charlie LaSata’s courtroom. He had been transported over through the tunnel from the jail by Berrien County Sheriff Deputy James Atterberry. He was in LaSata’s courtroom when Bailiff Ron Kienzle motioned to Atterberry that Gordon was not needed in the courtroom. Atterberry lead Gordon out of the courtroom and into a hallway. The scuffle between Atterberry and Gordon can be heard on the audio from LaSata’s courtroom. Kienzle quickly responds to the hallway to assist. Radio transmissions and key activations were used to determine that Head of Courthouse Security Joe Zangaro responds next to the area. Both Kienzle and Zangaro are fatally wounded. While being handcuffed and in possession of the revolver he too, Gordon, is able to get out of the secured hallway and into the general courthouse area outside of the very courtroom that he was to appear in. He yells out to the bailiffs that had responded that he has hostages, all while directing them to try and break a door down thinking he could escape that way and threatening them with the gun. Bailiffs from all areas of the courthouse respond and began to move in on Gordon. They are heard on the audio yelling out multiple times to drop the gun. He ends up moving to another area of the third floor while holding a woman in front of him as a human shield. The bailiffs and other local law enforcement that responded to the call for help were able to stop Gordon from hurting any more people. He died in an exchange of gunfire. Once the scene was secure, it was evaluated for injured citizens, first aid was provided to those that were injured, and life saving efforts was provided. Many hours later in a search of Gordon’s dorm at the Berrien County Jail, a letter was found that he had written to his ex-wife. In it Gordon states, “I’m just trying to get free and I’ll die trying.” Gordon stated that he was very sorry and asked for forgiveness for messing up his family and their lives. Gordon was facing the following charges: five counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree; one count of kidnapping; three counts of production of child sexually abusive material; possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine; one count of criminal sexual conduct in the 3rd degree; one count of unlawful imprisonment; two counts of assault by strangulation; one count of assault with a dangerous weapon; two counts of resisting and obstructing a police officer; and misdemeanor charges of possession of marijuana and malicious destruction of a building. In addition, he was supplemented as a 4 time habitual offender. His previous convictions include two federal convictions for possession of a pipe bomb: a feeling and eluding, 3rd degree; a federal conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm; and larceny in a building. Sanders did state that the results of the investigation would be sent to the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office for review.