Gunman Kills Two Outside Smith County Courthouse
Chaos Erupts as Shooter Fires 50 Rounds
On the afternoon of Feb. 24 in a span of five to 10 minutes the grounds of the Smith County Courthouse resembled what County Judge Becky Dempsey described as a war zone.
Two people were killed and several others, including three lawmen, were wounded when Tyler resident David Hernandez Arroya Sr., embroiled in a child support dispute, opened fire with an assault rifle from the street at the rear of the Smith County Courthouse.
Dempsey had just pulled into her parking space at the courthouse at approximately 1:25-1:30 p.m. when Arroya, armed with two types of body armor and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, ambushed his ex-wife and son outside the courthouse. Chaos erupted as Arroya fired 50 rounds, shattering glass and sending bystanders diving for cover behind cars and benches. Dempsey ducked down in her vehicle and was able to leave the scene unharmed (see her first-hand account, page?).
When Dempsey returned five minutes later, law enforcement personnel had descended on the scene to find the bodies of Arroyas ex-wife, Maribel Estrada, 41, and Mark Allen Wilson, 52, a bystander who attempted to intervene as Arroya opened fire on his 23-year-old son, David Arroya Jr., who had been acting as a mediator between his parents. Authorities later credited Wilson, who perished, with saving the life of the younger Arroya.
Smith County Sheriffs Deputy Sherman Dollison, 28, was shot multiple times while standing on the landing of the courthouse steps. Dollison, who was serving as a substitute bailiff that day, remains in critical but stable condition at East Texas Medical Center.
A sheriffs lieutenant and Tyler police detective were hit by stray gunfire; both were treated and released from the hospital.
The gunman eventually was shot and killed by police following a two-mile chase that ended off U.S. Highway 271.
No one inside the courthouse was wounded. However, bullets did penetrate the courthouse lobby, leaving holes in windows, walls and ceiling, and chips in the buildings marble and brick. The glass along the east side entrance was completely shattered.
Smith County Judge Recalls Unimaginable Crime Scene
It was February 24, 2005, about 1:30 p.m., and Smith County Judge Becky Dempsey had just pulled into her parking space on the northeast side of the Smith County Courthouse
Our former district attorney and now 241st District Judge Jack Skeen pulled in a couple of spaces down from me. As I was getting out of my vehicle, I heard an extremely loud, irregular “popping” sound. I looked around and noticed smoke coming from the area just outside the rear of the courthouse and people running. I was still looking around when a young man ran by my vehicle, called me by my first name, and told me to get down. I ducked down in my vehicle while thinking, “How can I get out of here?” About that time, there was a pause in the shooting, and I looked up to see Judge Skeen exiting the parking lot. Not to be left behind, I followed him and got away from the courthouse to a safe location some distance away. Try as I might, I couldn’t get through to my office as they were, at the same time, trying to reach me. In the short span of the shooting, I received seven voice messages.
Five minutes after the shooting stopped, I returned to what looked like a war zone individuals shot, killed. Law enforcement personnel had descended on the area and were working frantically to aid victims and rope off the crime scene. The entire glass at the rear of the courthouse was shot out; there are bullet holes in windows, walls and ceilings, shell casings everywhere you can’t imagine the crime scene. Efforts began to locate employees whose whereabouts were not immediately known. As each employee was accounted for, there were both sighs and tears of relief.
Everything happened so fast, and I’ve replayed it in my mind a hundred times. Here’s the rest of the story: The young man who told me to “get down,” I’ve come to learn, was Jace Walker, the son of a long-time court coordinator, Marty Walker. On a sunny day, there would have been employees sitting on the benches or steps of the courthouse before returning to work from lunch; it was a chilly, cloudy afternoon. Oftentimes, jurors return to the courthouse during this time of day but none this particular day. The many bullets that entered the courthouse lobby and offices did not strike one courthouse employee or citizen! As for me, I was returning a little late from a speaking engagement. I’ll think twice before getting frustrated waiting in traffic.
Life is so precious and fragile, and the events of February 24, 2005, are a reminder that we not only should be grateful for each day God gives us, but we should make every day count for eternity.