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‘You don’t want to do this’: 30 years ago, a North Dakota judge was shot during hearing

The attack happened on May 5, 1992. It shocked the city of Grand Forks and ushered in the first meaningful security measures at the courthouse.

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Judge Lawrence Jahnke, left, and Reuben Ray Larson, right
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GRAND FORKS — On a Tuesday morning nearly 30 years ago, a man walked into KNOX Radio’s offices in southern Grand Forks and calmly started writing a note for the news director there.

“Hi,” it read. “My name is Reuben Larson. I just shot the judge, Lawrence Jahnke.”

Larson barely acknowledged the reporter who approached him, but she immediately recognized him. Larson was a former Grand Forks City Council member, after all, and had appeared before the Grand Forks County Commission.

More to the point, the reporter had just wrapped up an on-air update about the shooting. Barely 15 minutes earlier, Larson approached Jahnke during a child support hearing and shot him in the abdomen. Jahnke was still fighting for his life in that courtroom – a doctor and an attorney arguing a malpractice case in another courtroom rushed in to provide life-saving CPR while they waited for an ambulance to arrive.

The reporter, Kristin Johnson, walked into the station’s broadcast booth to tell announcer Kevin Arvidson what was happening. Arvidson called police, who arrested Larson later that day near Hatton, North Dakota, after a lengthy chase.

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The attack happened on May 5, 1992. It shocked the city and ushered in the first meaningful security measures at the courthouse. But, decades later, the wounded judge said he didn’t change much after his brush with death, and he harbors no ill will toward the man who shot him.

“I would have no compunction, if I saw him on the street, to walk up and start a conversation,” Jahnke, who goes by “Larry,” said of Larson in a Friday, Feb. 11, interview with the Herald. “People asked me, ‘do you want to switch courtrooms?’ No. ‘Do you have a fear of guns?’ No. ‘Do you want to not handle child support cases, contentious cases, cases that you know could be contentious?’ No. I think I was fortunate to come through with no what I could call adverse effects. Who knows? I mean, a lot of people probably think I’m crazier than hell.”

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The Grand Forks County Courthouse. (Grand Forks Herald)

The shooting

Jahnke grew contemplative when asked about the day of the shooting. It was a beautiful, cloudless day, he recalled, and Larson was in Grand Forks County Court to explain why he hadn’t been making child support payments. He was called to the witness stand and, before being sworn in, drew a gun from a satchel he was carrying, Jahnke said, and pointed it at the judge.

“You don’t want to do this,” Jahnke remembered saying. Larson fired two shots, one of which hit Jahnke.

Virtually the only memory Jahnke has of the following week is a dreamlike ride in an ambulance clack-clacking over railroad tracks as his friend pleaded with him to hang in there.

“And I couldn’t understand why he was saying that,” Jahnke said.

It didn’t even register that he had been shot.

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“There was no burning sensation, no pain associated with it,” Jahnke said. “It was just like the lights going out.”

Judge Lawrence Jahnke

The buildup

Jahnke and Larson knew each other before the shooting, but their relationship wasn’t adversarial or contentious. Contemporary interviews with Larson’s family and associates painted a picture of a staunch conservative who slowly trended toward radicalism.

He served on the city council from 1978 through 1982, and frequently voted against government spending of various types, including the city’s longstanding “dial-a-ride” transit system. Larson maintained that North Dakota had no right to require a driver’s license, and was frequently arrested for driving without one. He sued the city, claiming that it was illegal to require a permit to assemble publicly, as well as the state tax commissioner, county officials, judges, and his probation officer for various reasons.

Larson alleged tax laws are unconstitutional and felt that judges violate people’s rights during divorce proceedings and in child custody cases. He claimed in 1984 to have stopped paying his federal income taxes, and his ex wife told the Herald shortly after the shooting that Larson became increasingly obsessed – to the point of frightening, worrisome anger – with resisting taxes and, ultimately, any government structure. He was convicted of tax evasion and tax fraud in 1988 and ultimately served 13 months, during which his wife divorced him. He refused to stick to the rules of his probation or comply with child-support orders issued by Grand Forks County judges.

Two months before the shooting, Ward Johnson, an attorney, overheard Larson allegedly threaten Jahnke after the judge ruled against him in another case. The attorney warned the judge, but there wasn’t much that could be done, the Herald reported shortly after the shooting. Two men who were jailed with Larson before the shooting would later testify that Larson said he wanted to kill a judge who was messing with him on child support.

Judges seldom run into someone like Larson in their line of work, Jahnke said. And they upset someone in nearly every case they try.

“Because someone wins and someone loses,” Jahnke said. “Whether it’s a divorce case or a criminal case, the sentence is always too harsh or the victim’s too lenient.”

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The aftermath

After several months of civic wrangling, the county installed a metal detector that had been donated by Northwest Airlines and Grand Forks County sheriff’s deputies began regularly patrolling the courthouse.

None were present at the hearing during which Larson shot Jahnke, which was common practice for civil hearings at the time. Before then, Jahnke said, court workers had to request deputies be present for hearings.

The judge’s recovery was relatively speedy: He was back at work, part-time, in late July of 1992. Now retired, Jahnke said his brush with death made him value life and relationships more, and made him more patient with people. A religious person before and after the shooting, he said he doesn’t go to church every Sunday but prays and thanks God every day.

“It wasn’t my time to go. God had a different plan for me. I hope I haven’t disappointed Him and screwed it up,” Jahnke said with a chuckle. He still lives in Grand Forks, where he hunts, fishes, and occasionally meets other court staff, many of whom have since retired.

Larson was ultimately found guilty of attempted murder in state court and, later, guilty of violating federal firearms laws. He was released from federal custody in February 2016.

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTSTRUE CRIME
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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