By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - A gunman who opened fire in an Arkansas judge's office on Tuesday entered the courthouse unopposed while wearing tactical gear and armed with three semi-automatic weapons, authorities said on Wednesday.
The apparent ease with which James Ray Palmer entered the building -- straight through the front door -- has raised questions about safety even in small county courthouses and prompted a reexamination of security measures there.
"For many years we have recognized the potential dangers for judges and their employees," Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah said in a statement, adding that he and other judges have been trying to call attention to the issue.
"But this isn't just about protecting judges. We want the courts to be accessible and safe for everyone who uses the legal system."
Authorities said Palmer, who was ultimately shot dead by police, had set his own home on fire in nearby Kibler, Arkansas, before going on a shooting rampage on the second floor of the Crawford County courthouse.
"He had attempted to burn his residence using incendiary devices that were strategically placed to engulf the house, but it didn't burn as much as he had hoped," said Sgt. Daniel Grubbs, spokesman for the Fort Smith Police Department.
When Palmer, 48, got to the courthouse, he asked for Crawford County Division 1 Judge Gary Cottrell, who had once presided over a divorce and custody case involving Palmer, police said.
A courthouse employee informed him that Cottrell was out of the courthouse, authorities said. Palmer then shot the employee in the leg, wounding her.
He then fired several rounds in the courthouse in shooting that continued for about eight minutes, including shots into historic photographs, walls and doors.
Employees sounded panic alarms and made 911 calls that triggered responses from multiple agencies, including the Van Buren Police Department, the Crawford County Sheriff's office, the Fort Smith Police Department, Arkansas State Police and the Arkansas Highway Patrol.
Grubbs said Palmer exited through the front door and spent about four minutes on the lawn, eventually leaving on a motorcycle. As officers arrived, Palmer engaged them in gunfire, Grubbs said.
One officer suffered minor injuries from shattered glass from his vehicle, and Palmer was shot and later died.
Police were trying to ascertain Palmer's motives in the shooting, but said his death means answers to his rampage may be hard to come by. No major evidence was found at his home.
"What causes people to go into this series of actions, we may never know," Grubbs said.
Palmer, who had no criminal history, had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, according to Arkansas State Police. He wore tactical gear similar to what law enforcement officers wear that allows the carrying of extra magazines and holsters for firearms.
Investigators were talking to Palmer's relatives to see if they can provide any clues to his actions. Grubbs said it took considerable time to track down Palmer's next-of-kin.
On Wednesday, officials said the courthouse, which had six entrances before the shooting, would only have one from now on. Other security measures were being examined as the investigation continued, officials said.
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)