Judge reflects on foot chase with inmates that captured international attention

Lewis County judge R.W. Buzzard pursues inmates during attempted escape

Courthouse security footage shows Lewis County Judge R.W. Buzzard chase after two inmates who attempted to escape his courtroom in Chehalis, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2018. The judge grabs one escapee just as he’s primed to exit the building.
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Courthouse security footage shows Lewis County Judge R.W. Buzzard chase after two inmates who attempted to escape his courtroom in Chehalis, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2018. The judge grabs one escapee just as he’s primed to exit the building.

In the aftermath of an incident in Lewis County District Court in which a judge chased down two inmates who made a break for it, nobody could have predicted the explosion of media attention the incident would garner – including the man at the center of it all, Judge R.W. Buzzard.

Buzzard gave chase to inmates Tanner D. Jacobson, 22, of Onalaska and Kodey L. Howard, 28, of Winlock, catching Howard just before he reached an emergency exit. Jacobson was apprehended by Lewis County deputies a few blocks away.

Security footage of the incident was posted first on The Chronicle website, where it reached more than 62,000 views. But that was nothing compared to the totality of the incident’s attention.

“I Googled ‘judge chases inmates’ and I got to 10 full pages and then I stopped looking,” Buzzard told The Chronicle last week. Buzzard received interview requests from The New York Post, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, and Seattle and Portland outlets.

Emails came in from news sources in the United Kingdom and Japan, and other county offices got calls requesting copies of the video.

“Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue, for crying out loud,” Buzzard added.

In the video, Buzzard is seen tossing off his black robe and giving chase to Jacobson and Howard, who were handcuffed and wearing jail garb. The two leave the third-floor courtroom and make their exit through the stairwell, descending the steps quickly, sometimes several at a time.

Howard begins to lag behind, and Buzzard can be seen closing in. Buzzard gets ahold of Howard just as he was primed to leave through the emergency exit on the first floor, right at the bottom of the stairs. Jacobson made it out the same exit seconds before.

For these antics, The UK’s Daily Mail dubbed Buzzard “hero judge” and The New York post certified him a “badass.”

The glut of attention is welcome, but only in a certain sense, Buzzard said.

“It’s welcome in a sense that, not personally, but … professionally, it gives people an idea … what we do, what we see, what we deal with, and it shows people who we are as judges,” he said.

Many of the interviews, he said, took on a humorous tone – drawing on the ridiculousness of two handcuffed inmates in immediately noticeable clothes seeming to think they had a shot at freedom.

“Sure, it had that element, but it also had the element of, the reason I went after them is because there was nobody else immediately to do so, and if they were desperate enough to run like that, who knows what they were desperate enough to do when they hit the streets,” he said.

“So, it was pretty dangerous.”

Simultaneously, the attention is somewhat baffling, Buzzard said because similar situations are likely to be playing out in courtrooms across the nation every day. He’s unsure, he said, what it is about this story that caught on like wildfire.

There was a degree of interest among district court staff, watching the story reach more and more people, but it didn’t have any effect on the following workdays, Buzzard said.

There were four inmates total in the room when Jacobson and Howard ran, and one guard. In an interview at the time, Sheriff Rob Snaza said the deputy didn’t give chase because he had to tend to the other inmates. Communication protocol in the courthouse ensured that other deputies were aware of the situation almost instantly, he said.

“These things don’t happen very often,” said Snaza, adding that this marks the second such incident he’s aware of.

The attempted escape comes in the middle of ongoing conversation about courthouse security. During an interview at the time, Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said the incident could have easily caused injury to a member of the public. Meyer said meetings with courthouse personnel about security have spawned many ideas, including a need for a larger armed presence.

Buzzard said the idea has floated around for armed, uniformed officers to assist in inmate transport and to roam the building.

“We draw a lot of ire in this building – prosecutors, law enforcement and courts, so it’s top of our minds and we’re in the discussion. But of course, it’s gonna ultimately be in the hands of county commissioners and boils down to finances,” he said.

Howard and Jacobson were each charged with second-degree escape. Howard is being held on a $50,000 cash bond, and Jacobson on a $100,000 cash bond. Both have jury trials scheduled for Dec. 17.