The ex-wife of a gunman who opened fire in a rural Arkansas courthouse this week won a protective order against him before their divorce, claiming he was violent and threatened to buy assault weapons to hunt "two legged" targets, according to court documents released Thursday.
Steffeny Palmer claimed in 1999 that she was physically and mentally abused by James Palmer, alleging in a court petition that he hit her in front of their young son and once set their couch on fire. Her husband denied the claims, but the protective order and the couple's eventual divorce were granted by Arkansas Circuit Judge Gary Cottrell.
Investigators said James Palmer was looking for Cottrell on Tuesday when he walked into the Crawford County courthouse in Van Buren, hiding two handguns and an assault rifle under a jacket. When told the judge wasn't in, Palmer opened fire and injured a court worker. He died following a shootout with police.
Palmer had sent a text message to his mother earlier that day that read, "Today's the day. Today I'm going to die," and investigators discovered after the shootings that Palmer's home had caught fire, police said Thursday.
Phone messages left by The Associated Press at the homes of Steffeny Palmer and other relatives, and at Cottrell's office, were not returned. James Palmer's attorney when the divorce was granted, John Settle, also did not return a message.
Palmer, who lived in nearby Kibler, had recently moved personal belongings to a storage unit, paid for the unit in advance and mailed a key to a family member, Van Buren Police Lt. Brent Grill said.
Authorities haven't specified what or who may have started the blaze at Palmer's home. When authorities entered the damaged house after the shootings, they found a newspaper clipping about a January 2010 shooting at a local Hampton Inn hotel, Grill said.
Palmer's mother contacted authorities the day before because she was worried about her 48-year-old son, Grill said. But after sheriff's deputies were sent to check on him, she called back and told them not to go, he said. She called authorities again Tuesday after receiving the text, Grill said.
The shooting shocked Kibler's police chief, who had known James Palmer for years. Roger Green said Palmer was frustrated by his divorce but never showed signs that he was capable of Tuesday's attack.
Green was first called to Palmer's home several years ago after a burglary in which Palmer's motorcycles were stolen. The police chief said that after the burglary, Palmer would sometimes stop by his office to chat and his divorce "seemed to always be on his mind."
Palmer never threatened Cottrell or suggested that he was thinking of an attack, Green said.
The police chief said he was among dozens of officers called to the courthouse Tuesday afternoon, but he didn't know who was involved until he saw news reports that night.
"I still didn't believe it until I saw his picture on the website, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks," Green said.
The court documents obtained by The Associated Press detail the divorce along with James Palmer's past financial troubles.
The couple briefly reconciled after Steffeny Palmer filed for divorce in 1999, but she filed again in May 2000. Along with her claims of abuse, she alleged that her husband told her father that he purchased several weapons to go "hunting two legged," according to the petition she filed seeking the protective order.
Cottrell granted her custody of the couple's child in 2001, with limited visitation for James Palmer. He was ordered him to pay $50 a week in child support, but that November was given a 30-day suspended sentence by Cottrell for falling behind on child support.
James Palmer filed for bankruptcy in 2005, saying he owed more than $35,000 spread among five credit cards.
Cottrell told the Southwest Times Record that he didn't remember Palmer's divorce and didn't recognize a photo of him. He said a sore knee had kept him out of court Tuesday.
"This guy came to wipe out my office," Cottrell told the newspaper. "I believe if he had killed me, he would have killed everyone in his path."
Associated Press writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this report.