‘It was a very dark time’: Judge recounts the ordeal after her attack

Crime

Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek made it to the front porch of her home before she collapsed. 

Her scarf was bloody and her family was screaming as her son rushed to get a towel after calling 911.
Her sister looked at her and said, “you are quitting that job.”

Kocurek said she didn’t know how or why someone was after her, but she suspected it had something to do with her job handling felony cases.

Kocurek was composed as she testified in a federal courtroom about Nov. 6, 2015.

“That’s the day I was shot,” she said as she took a pause, “and our world was basically shattered.”

“our world was basically shattered.”

Kocurek was the last witness prosecutors called to the stand before the defense called Chimene Onyeri to testify during the 15th day of trial on Thursday. Onyeri is accused of orchestrating the assassination attempt against Kocurek. 

Witnesses have testified that Onyeri was “mad” at a judge who wanted to revoke his probation and sentence him to at least six years in prison.

Kocurek’s son, Will, was driving the night she was shot when they pulled up to their Austin home after getting back from a high school Friday night football game. They saw a large paper trash bag blocking a security gate at the driveway’s entrance.

Kocurek said she thought it was “weird,” but after talking it over with her son they decided it was someone playing a prank.

“I should have gone with my gut,” Kocurek testified.

Her son got out of the car and moved the bag, but soon Kocurek noticed he was hopping around and acting odd. Then, Kocurek said there was a “blast” with pops of sound, followed by pain. A pain that she hasn’t forgotten and said she hopes she never feels again.

“It seemed like an eternity,” Kocurek testified.

Onyeri, who took the stand in his own defense for hours on Thursday, said he placed the bag in front of the Kocurek’s security gate to “scare them s—less, to scare the hell out of them.”

When asked if he intended to kill anyone,Onyeri responded with “hell nah.”

With Kocurek’s son, Will, no longer in the vehicle, Onyeri said he didn’t know anyone was inside when he fired a gun and shot out her window. He said he was happy because he destroyed some of her property and only thought he was vandalizing the judge’s car.

“That’s why you don’t shoot in cars, man,” Onyeri testified, when asked how he felt when he learned Kocurek was inside the car when he shot at it. “I was f—ed up about that, man, I was.”

As she was being shot at, Kocurek said ducked down as far as she could and covered her face with her left arm. She yelled, “He got me. He got me,” thinking it would encourage the suspect to leave.

She didn’t recognize who was shooting her, but saw a grey or light green sedan drive away. She thought to herself, “if I live I’ve got to remember what this looks like.”

“I was still so afraid that they were going to come back and shoot us and finish it off.”

She thought she was going to die in front of her son.

“I remember Will telling me ‘goodbye’ like he wasn’t going to see me again,” she said.

Injuries and recovery

Kocurek took off her navy blazer to expose her arms. She held up her scarred left arm and hand, which had its index finger amputated, and walked past jurors so they could see the physical damage she suffered from the shooting.

Her body has “miraculously” healed, she said, but the scarring still causes her to feel like her skin is extremely tight, and she’s had to fight hard at surgery just to regain use of her injured hand.

She’s also dealing with the psychological trauma, including moments when she wanted to die and thought her family would be better off without her.

“It was a very dark time,” she said.

Jurors saw graphic photos detailing the injuries to her face, neck and arms. A doctor who operated on her testified last week that she was under anesthesia for 15 consecutive days and underwent 20 surgeries. She said, at one point, doctors told her they may need to amputate her arm.

Kocurek was composed throughout her testimony, but her voice wavered as she spoke about a conversation she and her husband had with their two children. The couple promised to be honest with them if they thought she wouldn’t make it. “I kept telling the kids I’m going to be okay,” Kocurek said.

She doesn’t remember anything from a few days after the shooting. Her doctor previously testified that she was in a medically-induced coma for three days.

After reconstructive surgery, skin grafts and the amputation of her left index finger, Kocurek was discharged from the hospital in stable condition on Dec. 15, 2015. But, doctors say, she’s still recovering.

“We worked hard to restore our life because life is precious,” she said.

Onyeri court appearances

Kocurek, who has served as a Travis County district judge since 1999, said she has about 1,000 pending cases in her court at any given time. They’re “randomly assigned” to different judges in the after going before a grand jury.

Onyeri’s was on her docket.

She doesn’t remember him from that time, but looking at court records, she said he was indicted in March 2013 on a fraudulent possession of identifying information charge.

He received probation and as long as he abided by the terms of his condition and didn’t commit any additional offense, he was in the clear. But, in 2014, a motion to revoke Onyeri’s probation was filed, a warrant was issued and he made bond.

Soon Kocurek said she started seeing Onyeri in her courtroom once a month in October and December 2014 and January through April 2015.

“I started learning more about him,” she said, describing him as a “clean-cut guy.”

Onyeri ultimately walked out of her courtroom with no additional consequences until Aug. 2015, when a second motion was filed by the state to revoke his probation for two additional alleged offenses out of Louisiana.

His first appearance in her courtroom after that was Oct. 7, 2015.

Kocurek said the previous day, the probation department brought her a stack of files to review, including one about Onyeri’s case involving additional alleged debit card fraud. She wrote, “if true, 6-7 years” in prison. Multiple witnesses have testified that Onyeri was mad and wanted to kill a judge in Austin who was looking at giving him more prison time than his 3-year probation.

Despite the anger, Kocurek said nothing seemed odd about her interactions with him. She said she’s rarely had a defendant mad at her because she always tries to treat everyone with respect, regardless of their alleged crime.

“You’re not punishing the person,” she testified, “you’re looking at their actions.”

In November 2015, Kocurek said she got a call from Onyeri’s young lawyer who wanted to see if one of his court appearance dates could be reset and they rescheduled it for later that year.

But, Kocurek had to put her courtroom on pause after the attack.

Although one of her sisters asked her amid the crime scene to quit her job, Kocurek said she it was her passion. She said she became a judge so she could help people and saw it as a form of social work that allowed her to help reform alleged criminals and protect the community.

“It was bigger than me,” she said. “It was an attack on our justice system.”

She received a standing ovation when she returned to her courtroom.

Several county and district attorney’s joined Kocurek’s friends and family in a packed courtroom Thursday as she testified.

The defense didn’t have any questions for her. Soon after, the defense called its first witness — Onyeri.

Judge Lee Yeakel said putting Onyeri on stand to testify meant the prosecution could ask him what they want about previous convictions.

Onyeri laughed at times as he took the stand in his own defense, including when he said he’s an “exceptional salesman” and when he said he’s never had a legitimate job because he “gambled” his life away.

“I’m happy with how everything’s going, honestly,” Onyeri testified. “There’s no way I thought I was gonna get a fair trial out here.”

He will take the stand again at 9 a.m. Monday as prosecutors cross examine him.

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