clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Security scarce at courthouse when Ronnie Lee Gardner murdered attorney

Ronnie Lee Gardner grimaces with pain from his gunshot wound on the lawn at the Metropolitan Hall of Justice after his recapture on April 2, 1985.
Ronnie Lee Gardner grimaces with pain from his gunshot wound on the lawn at the Metropolitan Hall of Justice after his recapture on April 2, 1985.
O. Wallace Kasteler, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — A woman roaming the courthouse hallway, likely armed. A gun exchanging hands inside the courthouse. A prisoner attempting to escape, shooting a bailiff and an attorney in the process.

While this sounds like something drummed up from the imaginations of Hollywood writers, it was all too real for the people inside the old Salt Lake County Courthouse on April 2, 1985. Ronnie Lee Gardner — shortly after arriving at the courthouse for a hearing on another murder charge — obtained a gun on the first floor and shot and wounded bailiff George Kirk and shot and killed an attorney, Michael Burdell.

In today's age of magnetometers, bans on guns in the courthouse, thorough security checks and heavy bailiff presence, it's hard for most people to imagine anyone bringing a gun into a courthouse unnoticed.

"Pre-Gardner, there was very little if any security," said veteran prosecutor Bob Stott, who has been with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office for 35 years.

The old 3rd District Courthouse, 240 E. 400 South, was used from 1966 until 1998. Located on Library Square, the block was also home to the old Salt Lake County Jail, underneath the "building on stilts" as it was called because of its unique design. By the time the jail was moved in 2000 to its current location in South Salt Lake, security there was an issue. Escapes through decaying drywall or a false ceiling weren't uncommon.

In the days of the old 3rd District Courthouse, at least one veteran prosecutor said the assumption was that despite the lack of security, everyone was going to follow the rules.

"Nobody worried about guns back then," said former prosecutor Kent Morgan. "I thought all the crime was outside and never imagined there would be a crime in the courthouse. We had infinite faith in our police and bailiffs. Gardner took us by surprise. We thought death and wounding could happen anywhere in the city, but we really thought we were safe inside the county courthouse.

"It was an odd era where people actually listened to the judge when he said, 'Sit down or I'll put you in jail.' "

The courthouse was much less crowded in the early- to mid-1980s, and the building handled far fewer cases.

"It seems unbelievable as you look back," Stott added. "What a difference there was. Anybody off the street could walk into the courthouse carrying a briefcase. People did it all the time. Judges' offices were very accessible back then. There was no bailiff barring you from going back. Even when you entered a courtroom, they didn't check, even if you had something concealed. Hard to believe now as we look back, all those many years there wasn't an incident."

Even when a person entered the courtroom, they weren't searched, he said.

On the day of the shooting, Stott said the woman who went to court that day to provide Gardner the gun was spotted walking throughout the Metropolitan Hall of Justice hours before Gardner was transported from the prison. It is believed that she roamed the hallways of the Hall of Justice, armed the entire time.

Gardner entered the Hall of Justice from the underground parking area — the same area used by the public and court employees — and the woman reportedly was able to hand the gun off to him.

Stott, however, said the gun was taped to the water fountain in the small foyer area on the first floor. Gardner pretended to get a drink and found the gun that was waiting for him.

"Obviously he knew what he was looking for," Stott said.

In hindsight, it was just a matter of time before a Gardner-like incident happened, said former Salt Lake County Sheriff N.D. "Pete" Hayward. Because the public had unlimited access to the building, "there is probably little, if anything, we can do" to prevent a shooting, he told the Deseret News in a story published a day after the shootings. "There is absolutely nothing to stop someone from walking into a courtroom with a loaded gun. There are no security precautions taken unless the bailiff believes there is a threat or has been warned of a threat."

Kirk, the bailiff wounded by one of Gardner's bullets, said security was something that had come up in conversation at the courthouse. In an April 5, 1985, Deseret News story, Kirk said he wanted to see metal detectors installed and changes made in the way prisoners were transported.

"We're lucky we haven't had a shooting in one of our courtrooms," he said then. "That's something that will happen if they don't take steps to prevent it."

Security at the courthouse is greatly improved. "Absolutely Gardner changed that," Morgan said.

In 1998, the 3rd District Court, along with Juvenile Court and the Utah Supreme Court, moved into the new, multimillion-dollar Matheson Courthouse, on State Street between 400 South and 500 South. Critics called it the "Taj Mahal" because of its price tag and elaborate design.

The building came with new security measures. Courtrooms are equipped to conduct video arraignments from the Salt Lake County Jail, cutting down on transportation issues and security risks. Inmates no longer share hallways and waiting rooms with the general public.

The Matheson Courthouse includes three stories of underground parking, with secure entrances for judges and employees and a separate entrance for prisoner transports, away from the public.