It’s been six years since that Wednesday afternoon on the second floor of the Stockton courthouse. I’d been reporting on a weird murder case for more than two years, and it was all coming to a head, with the suspect testifying in his own defense. And then, in seconds, he nearly killed the judge before he was shot to death. I wrote about it for the local newspaper, just as I had written about the entire case. But there are so many other little things that I could not write about anywhere — some because I swore sources to anonymity and some because nobody would understand.
Six years later, I just sat here — also on a Wednesday — and wrote a paragraph trying to vaguely outline some of the things I could not write about. And then I deleted the paragraph, because it would make no sense. I don’t mind talking about the experience, and I’ve kept a couple college classes and a Rotary club riveted when I gave speeches about it. (I miss those kinds of things, actually.) And sometimes I tell people a bit more of the stuff I can’t say publicly, though always protecting the people I swore to secrecy. But what I still can’t put into words is WHY I still think of March 4 every year as the day approaches, and WHY I still spot and hate Chrysler 300 cars, and WHY I still have a lot of indignation toward some people involved in the case. Yesterday I got out the 19-page report issued by the District Attorney’s office many months later, and I can’t explain WHY I still haven’t read it, other than to skim it and see my name in a footnote.
I do know that the incident made me begin thinking, “Life is short; live it.” Three months after the courtroom attack, I witnessed a horrific car wreck that killed a couple, and I later met their family members. The mantra kept repeating itself. It took another year before I finally made drastic changes to escape from the unhappy rut that had become my life. But it all started at 2:10 p.m. on March 4, 2009. That much I do know.
Here, in its entirety, is my first-person account of that day. (I also wrote a main news story on the events in the courtroom. This was from my own view.)
Crime reporter becomes witness to a deadly courthouse shooting
Posted: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 10:00 pm
I heard gunshots. Someone in a seat near me said, “Get down!”
I clutched my white laptop computer to my chest and found myself crouching on the floor.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening in a Stockton courtroom.
Normally the squeaking court chairs are the loudest things in the room, but this time I never noticed.
I’d heard gunshots, close, distinct.
The defendant I’d watched periodically in court for the past two years was dead.
The judge he’d attacked was alive.
I’ve written about countless shootings before. Now I had witnessed one, maybe 30 feet way.
The whole murder case had been a bit surreal even before the suspect lunged, before the shots were fired.
David Paradiso was 27 on that day in 2006 when he and a young woman named Eileen Pelt were riding in the back seat of his mother’s car in Lodi. Suddenly he shoved a large knife through her neck.
He told his mother to keep driving, and she did.
A couple hours later, he ditched the victim’s body. His mom went to police, and they caught up, which triggered a high-speed chase before he was stopped.
I learned of the killing the next morning. I would ultimately drive through pouring rain to various places in Roseville and Grass Valley, finding friends and family members of the victim.
The case wound its way through the court system. Wednesday morning saw me driving in light rain to another day of Paradiso’s murder trial.
He’d testified in his own defense the previous day but hadn’t finished, and I wanted to hear his reasoning on some things.
The morning was uneventful. I sat in the second-floor courtroom with my laptop on my knees, listening to a doctor talk about methamphetamine, which Paradiso had consumed at various times during his 29 years.
Around 2 p.m., after the lunch break, it was time for Paradiso to return to the witness stand to face the prosecutor.
I’d noticed today that Paradiso, compact with short brown hair, wasn’t wearing a suit jacket and tie, as he did when he testified the previous day.
Instead, he wore a blue and white striped long-sleeved shirt, with the top button open.
Because of various court rulings over the years, defendants don’t wear shackles and jail clothing because it could make the jurors think he’s guilty. Instead, prisoners wear a leg brace that keeps them from running.
When it was his turn to testify, he stood and paused briefly, looking down at a pair of wireless reading glasses he’d worn a couple times during trial. He picked them up, then left them at the defense table.
It was 2:03 p.m. when Paradiso went to the witness stand, which is about three feet from the judge’s right-hand side.
His testimony the previous day had been in a monotone. He hadn’t denied killing Pelt, instead saying he was paranoid and that she’d made some sort of threat.
But this time, when the prosecutor asked why he killed the young woman, Paradiso had a different response:
“‘Cause she deserved it.”
Pelt’s family members, sitting behind me, gasped. They didn’t get any calmer when Paradiso made an derogatory comment about the victim, either.
But it was his mother, Debra Paradiso, who was the loudest. When she testified earlier in the trial, adjustments had to be made to the microphone so she could be heard. This time, everyone heard her.
She shouted that her son hadn’t wanted to testify.
A bailiff told her to leave, and she began to, while sobbing and still yelling. A bailiff spoke into his shoulder radio calling for back-up. A sergeant was soon standing in the doorway.
Judge Cinda Fox told the jurors to leave with a bailiff for a recess.
Then I heard a Paradiso family friend shouted, “No, David, stop!”
There, at the witness stand, Paradiso was no longer sitting.
He was standing.
Even as I write this some nine hours later, it feels as though my mind was a camera with a slow shutter. At one moment, Paradiso was standing with arms at his sides.
In the next moment, he was standing behind and over the judge, his right arm around her as if to stab her. Though I would be asked many times if I saw something in his hand, I still don’t know.
Something very wrong was happening in the courtroom, and my brain almost didn’t want to process it.
I knew people were near him, and I saw Detective Eric Bradley’s bald head.
Bradley, an Air Force veteran, is more than six feet tall. After working the crime and courts beat for more than six years, I recognize Lodi cops, and Bradley is no exception.
When I heard three shots ring out, I didn’t see a gun but I knew Bradley was the shooter.
I think a bailiff was right there, but something about Bradley’s arm position told me he was the one.
My mind was trying to catch up. When Paradiso had stood, some part of my brain said that he’d be stopped. When he went for the judge, I still thought it wouldn’t really happen.
I knew the shots were real. I was sure they were from Bradley’s gun. And I didn’t see how Paradiso could get hold of a gun.
But when someone near me said “Get down!” and I saw people ducking, I thought it might not be over.
Could more shots be coming? Could Paradiso, with his very lengthy criminal record that included assaulting officers, keep going?
That’s how I found myself crouching by my seat.
It was only for a moment, and I was still trying to see what had happened, but at that point in time, the survival instinct had beaten out my innate curiosity.
Then someone was telling me to get out. I managed to grab my purse and was still holding tightly to my laptop. I still couldn’t see the judge.
Out in the hallway, officers were pouring out of nearby doorways with guns drawn. A bailiff soon yelled “Code 4,” meaning “all clear.”
I knew then that Paradiso was dead.
Paramedics rushed in, along with a host of other officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes.
Then I heard an officer saying, “She’s asking for her mother.”
Judge Fox’s mother had been watching the trial, and I somehow knew that was who the officer meant.
In other words, the judge was alive.
The crime scene was soon widened, as the courthouse was locked down. The judge was wheeled out on a stretcher, alert and talking. A juror followed, also alert, and I would later learn that he’d had chest pains.
In the midst of the chaos, I’d called my editor’s cell phone. He answered, and I don’t think he was expecting to hear me begin blurting things like, “The defendant attacked the judge. Shots fired. Paradiso. The judge is Cinda Fox.”
Then I found myself on the other end of where most reporters operate: Attorneys were asking me what had happened. I’m usually pestering them about cases, but now I was doing the talking.
My cell phone was buzzing with text messages. An attorney on another floor wanted to know if I was OK. A friend of mine was upstairs and had felt the floor shake from the gunshots.
They knew what courtroom I was in, and they didn’t know where I was or what had happened. It sometimes took me a while to reply, and now I realize that it was probably a bit agonizing to wait for my response letting them know I was OK.
I talked to people, I tried to update my poor editor, I answered my phone to hear a TV reporter on the other end.
Though I was fine, I soon realized my stomach was in knots – a feeling I’ve heard but never really understood until now. I haven’t been physically sick in at least 15 years (my running buddies think it’s unfair that I can eat anything before and during a run). I didn’t get sick this time either, but this was a weird sensation.
I knew, even before investigators confirmed it, that I’d be a witness they wanted to interview.
Reporters are the ones who ask questions, and they don’t want to compromise their own stories. But at the same time, I’ve talked to far too many family members who never get full answers because witnesses couldn’t be found.
I would want the same thing if the roles were reversed.
I didn’t have a lot of choice, anyway, and before too long I found myself in a conference room on the fifth floor of the courthouse, along with a fellow reporter and a handful of prosecutors who’d witnessed the shooting.
We waited. Water arrived, for which I was extremely grateful. (My water bottle, as well as my umbrella, are still in the sealed courtroom.) I told my editor that pizza had been mentioned, but I better not be waiting that long.
I was wrong. Pizza came, was eaten, and then more pizza came. I didn’t want to eat anything, but I did take another bottle of water.
Finally, at 7:25 p.m., three investigators took me to another room and recorded my statement about what I’d seen. I’ve seen enough trial testimony to know they want details, and they want me to describe things, rather than make motions with my hands.
They had me draw a diagram of the courtroom, despite my insistence that my mother is an artist while I most certainly am not.
After an hour and five minutes, they’d finally asked enough questions.
I was free to go.
By then, my car was locked in a Stockton parking garage. Someone finally got it open, and I began the 16-mile drive back to Lodi.
I found myself making sure my car doors were locked. I didn’t want to be near other cars on the dark highway. I knew I was just as safe as any other time, but my head was playing games with me.
Finally, I got back to Lodi, after a two-minute delay for a train.
I was home. I was fine. But my mind was still going at warp speed.
It still is.