Ambushed judge fires back at shooter in Steubenville attack

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Jefferson County Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. was ambushed Monday in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio. (AP)

The sad and sorry story surrounding the case of a 2012 high school rape in Steubenville, Ohio, continued Monday when the father of one of the football players convicted in that crime, ambushed and shot a local judge, before being killed. The son of that judge is a former local prosecutor who reportedly worked on the early stages of the rape case.

Nathaniel Richmond was pronounced dead after being shot, according to Jefferson County district attorney Jane Hanlin. The shooting took place outside the Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Steubenville, an old coal town on the Ohio River along the eastern edge of the state. Richmond opened fire on Common Pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese as the judge arrived for work early Monday morning.

Bruzzese was hit but survived and was deemed to be doing well after surgery. Bruzzese was armed at the time and immediately returned fire on Richmond in a wild shootout, before a probation officer nearby ran to the scene and fired on Richmond, as well. It’s unclear who fired the lethal round.

“In all likelihood, [the probation officer] saved the judge’s life,” Hanlin said Monday afternoon, declining to release the name of the officer in an effort to assure his safety.

Motive for the attack is under investigation, Hamlin said.

Bruzzese did not preside over the closely watched 2013 trial that saw Ma’lik Richmond, then 16, and teammate Trent Mays, 17, found guilty for raping an intoxicated 16-year-old West Virginia girl. Bruzzese’s son Frank worked in the prosecutor’s office and is said to have aided on the case but was not a lead attorney or a presence during the trial.

Both boys were high-profile players for the local Steubenville Big Red football team, a point of pride in the fading city.

The crime so engulfed the small city of Steubenville that in an effort at impartiality, Judge Thomas Lipps was brought in from the Cincinnati area to handle the case and ruling.

Local authorities were under considerable pressure after being accused of a cover-up and lackluster investigation from various groups, including the online activists Anonymous. Trial evidence and testimony actually showed no such cover-up occurred and the boys were arrested in a fairly swift manner. Controversial plea deals to acquire the cooperation of other boys at trial were granted by Judge Lipps.

Ma’lik Richmond was sentenced to one year in a youth correctional institute for his role in the rape, parts of which were photographed, filmed and shared either via text message among friends or on social media.

Nathaniel Richmond was present for every day of his son’s trial. At sentencing, he apologized for Ma’lik’s actions and said his own troubled life was a reason that this occurred in the first place. Ma’lik also tearfully addressed the court, the victim and her family.

“Everyone knows I wasn’t there for my son,” Nathaniel said in 2013. “I feel responsibility for his actions. I feel highly responsible for his actions.”

Ma’lik, himself, was recently in the news when Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini discovered he was attending classes at the school and invited him to walk on the team.

Richmond was a promising running back for the Big Red as a high school sophomore. After serving a year in juvenile in 2014, Richmond had returned to Steubenville and played as a linebacker as a senior before graduating. He attended two other schools before enrolling at YSU in August of 2016. He has had no other incidents with law enforcement.

Pelini told the Youngstown Vindicator that because Richmond had already shown his maturity by attending the university, he didn’t think inviting him onto the team in a non-scholarship role should be a problem. He promised extra, although unspecified restrictions, and constant monitoring. Richmond officially walked on in January.

“He’s been going to school,” Pelini told the Vindictor earlier this month when word of Richmond on the team broke. “He’s been here as a student. He’s proved he can be part of the student community.”

That decision didn’t go over well with some. An online petition called for the school to step in. Days later Youngstown State ruled that while Richmond could practice with the team, he would not play in the 2017 season.

“Youngstown State University takes the matter of sexual assault very seriously and continues to educate everyone within the campus community about the impact and prevention of sexual assault,” a school statement said.

In Steubenville on Monday, Sheriff Fred Abdalla said at a news conference that Nathaniel Richmond apparently laid in wait to attack Judge Bruzzese, according to video surveillance. Abdalla said there was no known motive for the case, although authorities are trying to review interactions between the two.

Richmond was, according to Abdalla, well known to law enforcement. After a night of drinking Sunday, Richmond had apparently told a friend he was supposed to be in court Monday morning, Abdalla said.

Richmond and Bruzzese exchanged five shots each, according to Abdalla, before help arrived. By being armed, the judge was essentially able to buy time for back-up.

“If the probation officer was not there, the shooter would have kept shooting until the judge was dead,” Abdalla said. “It was a cold-blooded attempted murder on a judge.”

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