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Chris Bieri, Forum Communications Co., Published May 06 2012

20 years later, judge still feels courtroom shooting

GRAND FORKS – There are still moments when State District Court Judge Lawrence Jahnke is on the bench and his mind drifts back in time.

Twenty years ago last Saturday, in Room 201 of the Grand Forks County Courthouse, Jahnke was shot in the abdomen by Reuben Ray Larson, who was in court for a child-support hearing.

Jahnke, 69, returned to the bench in late July 1992. Larson, 63, was convicted of attempted murder by a jury and sentenced to 26 years in prison. He’s currently in the North Dakota State Penitentiary.

While they are rare, Jahnke said he still has brief relapses when he’s at the same bench in the same court where the shooting occurred.

“There have been occasions when very graphic testimony in a case about firearms being used to seriously injure or kill someone has made me momentarily take a leap backwards to 1992, to the actual moment of the shooting itself,” Jahnke said in an email to the Grand Forks Herald.

Jahnke testified that Larson approached the bench, reached over it and fired at him as he dropped down.

Assistant State’s Attorney Sonja Clapp, now a Northeast Central District Judge, and District Court Clerk Clarrine Evans were also in the courtroom.

Karen Aamodt, who has been Jahnke’s court reporter since 1989, escaped into her office to call an ambulance.

She said Larson walked into the doorway of her office and said, “It’s over. It’s done.” He fled to the KNOX radio station, where he left a note that he’d shot a judge.

Larson was eventually arrested later that day near Hatton.

Jahnke needed six hours of surgery, sustaining injuries to his right kidney and liver. His pancreas had to be removed.

Larson’s background

Larson was a Grand Forks City Council member from 1978-82, but was known as a scofflaw even before shooting Jahnke.

He admitted publicly in 1984 that he hadn’t paid taxes since 1975, according to a newspaper report.

In 1988, Larson went to prison for tax evasion.

Following a divorce from his wife, Margaret Larson, in 1989, he was ordered to pay child support by Judge Bruce Bohlman.

After twice being held in contempt of court by Bohlman for not paying, Larson came in front of Jahnke in early 1990.

Like Bohlman before him, Jahnke ordered payment or jail time. Larson served a six-month stint and was released in early 1992. After continuing to not pay, he appeared before Jahnke on May 5, 1992. Larson became angry when Jahnke tried to appoint him an attorney. Larson also refused to take the stand.

Jahnke said he’s never felt any personal animosity toward Larson.

“I don’t feel that I was targeted personally, but rather Mr. Larson was just after whomever he had to appear before that day,” Jahnke said in his email. “The issue (his child support obligation) that had him so upset was imposed by another judge. The purpose of our particular hearing was simply to afford him an opportunity to explain why he was not providing support for his son as the other judge had earlier directed.”

Help from a friend

If anyone could be counted as having some good luck on a day they were shot, Jahnke could.

Jahnke’s close friend, Dr. Daniel Schmelka, was in a nearby courtroom for a malpractice case and helped perform CPR on the judge minutes after he was shot.

Schmelka’s attorney, Pat Maddock, a former ambulance attendant, did chest compressions on Jahnke, while Schmelka performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until an ambulance arrived 10-15 minutes later.

Jahnke said a “guardian angel” must have put the two men in position to help save his life.

Schmelka’s wife was also involved in a strange turn of events on that fateful day.

Betty Schmelka was accompanying Jahnke’s wife, Shirley, an attorney who was headed to a hearing in Dunseith.

The two women got almost as far as Michigan on U.S. Highway 2 before a wheel on their car fell off.

The vehicle they were in normally was driven by Judge Jahnke, raising the suspicions of authorities that the wheel coming off may have been an attempt to harm the judge.

Then-Grand Forks County Sheriff Dan Hill said the mechanic who worked on the car believed the lug nuts on the wheel had been loosened.

The women were driven into Michigan by a man who told them a judge had been shot. At the local cafe, Shirley Jahnke called back to Grand Forks and learned the injured judge was her husband.

Improved security

The Jahnke shooting, along with similar incidents that spring, put the spotlight on the level of security in courthouses.

“It wasn’t just here,” Aamodt, Jahnke’s court reporter then, said. “It made people aware of security issues.”

In 1993, Jahnke, Larson and his ex-wife appeared on the “Sally Jesse Raphael Show” to debate courtroom security.

Jahnke called initial efforts to upgrade security in Grand Forks a “Band-Aid,” according to Herald reports.

Late last year, a man opened fire in a courtroom in Cook County, Minn., following a conviction on a sex crime. A state’s attorney and witness were hospitalized.

Jahnke said family law cases are the most volatile and that judges aren’t the only ones who are at risk, saying “litigants, attorneys and security personnel have also been killed or seriously injured” in other shootings.

Still, he said, his shooting brought awareness and increased security.

“In my opinion, added security in courthouses around the country has saved many lives,” Jahnke said.

Chris Bieri writes for the Grand Forks Herald