- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
Riveted by state District Judge Julie Kocurek’s recollection of “the most terrifying moments of my life” — the unsuccessful 2015 assassination attempt in the driveway of her West Austin home — a Texas Senate committee on Monday quickly approved legislation to improve security for courthouses and judges across Texas.
But it was her teenage son, Will Kocurek — who tried to get between his mom and the masked shooter — who drove the point home for the Senate State Affairs Committee.
“I called 911, and we got her up to the porch. I told her goodbye because I thought I would never see her again. I thought she was going to die,” said Will, 17. “The reason I support this bill — I want to do everything I can to make sure judges and their families are safe so no one else has to experience this.”
Will, who was driving the night of the attack, had left the vehicle to remove a bag of garbage that had been placed in front of their home security gate.
“A masked man in a hoodie with a gun appeared out of the darkness,” he told the committee, providing details about the attack not previously known publicly. “I realized he was after my mom, who was in the front passenger seat. I stood between the man and the front passenger side door so he could not get to my mom. The man then ran to the other side of the car … and shot my mom four times through the driver’s side window.”
Judge Kocurek, surrounded by family members as she testified before the committee, said it was “lucky we all walked away from that horrible night.”
“During those moments, I did not know whether I would live or die. I thought I was being killed in front of my own son, my sister and my nephew,” who also were in the vehicle. “However, one thing I knew — I knew immediately that someone was trying to kill me for simply doing my job,” she said.
Kocurek spent 40 days in the hospital and endured 26 surgeries.
“As I sat in the hospital, I will admit I questioned why I’d chosen this line of work, coming face to face with high-risk people every day,” she said. “I could retire. But then after a time passed, I realized that this was bigger than me. I needed to return to the bench to show that justice would prevail over violence.”
The shooting inspired an examination of courthouse security that identified several alarming shortcomings and resulted in Senate Bill 42, named the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act, by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
The bill would create a state director of security and emergency preparedness devoted to the judicial branch and require that judges and courthouse employees receive enhanced security training that would be paid for with a $5 increase to civil court filing fees.
For all state and federal judges and their spouses, SB 42 also would remove home addresses from publicly available government databases, particularly deed records.
Kocurek said her experience — taking unspecified action “to fortify our lives and make us safer” — revealed a hole in the system.
“I really don’t want to talk about my living situation in public, but so far we have spent about $60,000, and I expect it to go over $100,000,” she said.
When the Kocureks took out a loan to pay for the expenses, they discovered that although their name had been removed from appraisal district documents, they could not take Julie Kocurek’s name out of the deed records — a fertile source of information for internet search engines. “This bill addresses that,” she said.
SB 42 also would allow any law officer, including Department of Public Safety personnel, to provide personal security for judges anywhere in the state.
After the shooting, Kocurek said, Travis County provided security in the county, “but when I needed to travel outside, DPS said they had no authority to provide security for judges.”
Three men have been indicted in relation to the shooting of Kocurek.
According to federal indictments, Chimene Onyeri of Houston, Marcellus Burgin of Cypress and Rasul Scott of Louisiana participated in a wide-ranging fraud and racketeering operation and conspired to kill Kocurek because she was likely to send Onyeri back to prison for a probation violation on a previous charge in her court, disrupting their criminal enterprise.
After unanimous approval from the State Affairs Committee, SB 42 next heads to the Senate floor, where prompt passage is expected.
Identical legislation, House Bill 1487, has had a hearing, but no vote, in a House committee.