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Sheriff: Deputies shot Eaton nine times at courthouse

Robert Gerald Eaton carried two knives with 8-inch blades into the courthouse Monday afternoon, passing the security guards and a beeping metal detector, video footage released Thursday shows.

He had left the car he hijacked running across the street and headed straight for the courthouse's entrance, picking the shortest path through a dirt planter. Eaton appeared to be on a mission.

Seconds later, three deputies fired nine bullets and killed him inside a packed courtroom.

"Our deputies did exactly what they were trained to do," Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said. "(Eaton) was ready to inflict damage, as indicated by his cutlery set."

As the sheriff offered more details about Monday's shooting, front door security was again being handled solely by the four officers armed only with Tasers.

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Courthouse surveillance footage provide by Merced County Sheriff's Department





Sheriff's press conference:

For the past two days, at least one armed deputy stood next to the door as people passed through the checkpoint.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Tom Saavedra said members of the court's fleet of 13 gun-carrying deputies will be stationed at the front door as they become free during the day.

"Of course, the caveat is when the courthouse is the busiest, we don't have anyone to do that," Saavedra said.

The same sort of shooting would be able to happen again, he said.

The court isn't reevaluating security, Pazin said. It's well-known that an armed deputy should be at the front. However, funding for that has not been made available by the state.

Upon entering the courtroom, 40-year-old Eaton appeared to be bent on attacking Judge Brian McCabe, who had sentenced him three-and-a-half weeks earlier to three years of probation and ordered him to attend a DUI class.

An autopsy showed he was hit eight times in the torso and once in the leg. That bullet then hit the concrete and ricocheted into a wooden door.

The surveillance footage, shot from three different angles, matches witnesses descriptions of the courthouse shooting Monday. No cameras are mounted inside the courtroom.

The toxicology report, showing whether Eaton had any prescription or illegal drugs in his system, will be completed in four to six weeks, Pazin said.

What caused Eaton, who battled demons for the past few years, to storm into the courthouse armed with two kitchen knives is a mystery. It may likely remain one as well.

His family said they were aware that he had problems, but they didn't interfere with normal family life in Atwater.

Public records show he had a history of crimes that put him in jail and in front of judges, including the one he seemed set to stab. At the time of the shooting, he was still under court-supervised counseling, but because of privacy laws, it's unknown if he was receiving treatment.

The car he drove to the courthouse was stolen from a local nonprofit agency that provides psychiatric services for the mentally ill and helps them find jobs and housing

A health worker told law enforcement that Eaton was a diagnosed schizophrenic, which is the most known about his mental health problems.

Court records that had been in storage and were obtained Thursday by the Sun-Star reveal more about Eaton's run-ins with law enforcement.

Eaton's past includes assaulting an officer, breaking a window out of anger and driving a car into the courthouse because he was refused treatment at a psychiatric center.

In 2000, a judge issued four warrants because he failed to appear in court. Files showing why he was supposed to be in court for were unavailable because they've since been destroyed.

In July of the same year, he was arrested for assaulting his spouse, an allegation that was later dismissed.

The next month, he assaulted an officer and later pleaded no contest, receiving 20 days in jail with credit for time already served, 36 months of probation and was prohibited from owning a gun for 10 years.

For the next six years, he remained out of Merced's courts until April 2006 when he was arrested for throwing a rock through a neighbor's living room window. Responding officers recognized him from a suicide attempt earlier that year.

The next year, he drove his car into the old courthouse building because he'd been refused treatment at the psychiatric center.

In February, Merced police officers arrested him for drunken driving and for stealing his cousin's car. As in past cases, Eaton faced McCabe on the charges and was sentenced earlier this month.

Pazin said investigators aren't sure what sent Eaton to the courthouse one more time. It's also unclear whether he was targeting McCabe or simply looking for any judge. "The theories will be boundless," he noted.

What's known is that Eaton walked in at about 2:45 p.m. Monday, a lull in the day. During the court's busiest times, a line snakes out the door.

California Highway Patrol officer Shane Ferreira was at the front gate on his way to meet with a judge and didn't notice Eaton enter. Ferreira chased after him when a security guard alerted him to the armed intruder.

Eaton sprinted down the hallway, about 100 paces, and into the courtroom with the knives held above his head, the sheriff said.

Deputy Bill Haywood, deputy Steve Hymiller and one other unnamed deputy ordered him to drop his weapons, Pazin said.

When he ignored their commands, they shot him, just as he neared the tables for the prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The other deputy's name will be released after a trial he's testifying in wraps up, Pazin said. He was seated in court that day to testify in a hearing.

Pazin offered his condolences to Eaton's family, even though he was killed by his deputies.

"I understand what they must be going through," he said. "It chisels away at us."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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