Man killed at courthouse was schizophrenic

The man shot dead at the Merced County Superior Court on Monday afternoon was a diagnosed schizophrenic with a history of run-ins with the law.

Robert Gerald Eaton, 40, of Atwater, was shot by a sheriff's deputy after he walked into a packed courtroom about 2:45 p.m. carrying two large kitchen knives.

Eaton is the same man who crashed his car into the former courthouse building in April 2007. He told authorities then that he was angry that he had been refused treatment at a local mental health facility.

On Monday, Eaton returned to the new courthouse, this time armed with a knife in each hand. Eaton walked past unarmed guards at a security checkpoint at the court's entrance, witnesses said.

He then charged down the hall to Courtroom 2, where Judge Brian McCabe was presiding over a full courtroom.

Eaton entered the courtroom, where a sheriff's deputy inside ordered him to drop the knives. Eaton ignored the deputy. He then lunged at McCabe in a "striking position," Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said.

A deputy shot Eaton four or fives times, witnesses said. Eaton died at the scene.

Story continues below video

Dartagnan Hutcherson, a 30-year-old witness who was sitting in the middle of Courtroom 2 when Eaton entered, said the 6-foot-4-inch man charged through the doors holding the knives above his head.

Eaton said nothing and kept his eyes fixed on McCabe, Hutcherson said.

"This guy comes in with a knife and I thought, 'Who is this guy out to get?'" Hutcherson said. "I was yelling 'He's got knives!'"

Hutcherson hit the floor when the deputy opened fire. Others jumped over seats and scrambled to get out of the room, he said.

Sean Howard, a public defender who saw Eaton running toward Courtroom 2, described him as determined.

"He didn't even give the people in the hallway a second look," Howard said. "He knew where he was going. ... I was yelling, 'He's got knives. He's got knives.' Other people were yelling to clear the hallway."

In Courtroom 1, down the hall from Courtroom 2, people were told to stay inside and stay quiet, said Joshua Eastep, 27. "They locked us down. ... When we heard shots one lady got so freaked out she was crying. A lot of people were scared."

Pazin said it was unknown Monday afternoon whether McCabe had ever presided over cases in which Eaton was a defendant or whether Eaton targeted McCabe for a specific reason. McCabe couldn't be reached for comment Monday night.

Eaton had a history of arrests dating back back to 1991, Pazin said. His most recent encounter with law enforcement officials was in February, when Merced police arrested him on suspicion of car theft, vandalism and a probation violation.

Douglas White, who said he knew Eaton for about eight years, remembered him as "good-natured" man who cared deeply for his children. White worked at a home for mentally handicapped adults, where he said Eaton lived several years ago.

"Before he would act out, he would try to seek help," White said. "He was aware enough to know that he had problems and he tried to get help."

White said Eaton suffered from delusions and that he sometimes believed he was a rock star and that he had been visited by Indian spirits.

On his good days, he was friendly but introverted, White said.

On bad days, when his mental health deteriorated, Eaton took out his frustrations by vandalizing property, White said. He added that he never saw Eaton act violently toward another person.

Eaton also received treatment through the county's mental health department, said White.

Sheriff's officials said they don't know what prompted Eaton to go to the courthouse Monday, but that he drove there in a stolen car.

He was a client at Turning Point Community Programs, a nonprofit agency that provides psychiatric services for the mentally ill and helps them find jobs and housing.

A driver from the agency picked Eaton up shortly after 2 p.m., said Deputy Ruben Orozco, who interviewed the driver after Eaton's death.

The driver, a woman who authorities declined to identify, was supposed to take Eaton to a medical appointment in the Merced area, Orozco said.

Instead, about 10 minutes into the trip, Eaton told the driver to pull over, Orozco said. "He basically said, 'I have some knives. I'm taking the car. I won't hurt you.' `"

He told her to take her purse and her cell phone and get out, Orozco said. The driver complied, then called authorities.

The driver told Orozco that Eaton suffered from schizophrenia.

Eaton arrived at the courthouse about 2:45 p.m. He left the car he'd hijacked, a 2007 silver Toyota Camry, running outside.

He walked into the courthouse through its entrance at 23rd and N streets. The security checkpoint there consists of two metal detectors and an X-ray machine. It is staffed by security guards employed by the sheriff's department, but the guards are not sworn deputies and they do not carry guns or handcuffs.

On Monday, the checkpoint was staffed by four guards armed only with Tasers.

Steven Ganoza, 22, was standing a few feet away from the security area when Eaton entered the courthouse. "I saw the knives immediately, but (security officers) didn't seem to notice," he said. "He just walked right through."

When the alarm on the metal detector sounded, security personnel called out after Eaton to stop, Ganoza said. "He got pretty far before they started chasing him."

Pazin declined to identify the deputy who shot Eaton, but said his actions were appropriate.

"They did exactly what they were supposed to," he said. "They probably saved lives." Pazin said footage from court surveillance cameras will be released as soon as his department has time to review it.

Eaton's body was removed from the courthouse sometime after 6:30 Monday night.

Eaton's family told a reporter who visited their Atwater home Monday afternoon that the family didn't want to talk to the media.

In a handwritten statement, the family said, "We are grieving at this time. ... We are sorry for the loss of our family member. We just want to be left alone."

After Eaton crashed his car into the side of the courthouse last April, he told authorities he drove into the building on purpose because he was angry that he had been refused treatment for his mental health problems.

Authorities responding to the scene of the 2007 crash found Eaton sitting on the courthouse's front lawn. A sheriff's spokesman said then Eaton had been arrested several times before on suspicion of domestic violence, public drunkenness, burglary, vandalism and fighting in public.

Reporters Victor Patton and Scott Jason contributed to this story. Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at (209) 385- 2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com. Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

Copyright 2008, Merced Sun-Star