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2018-05-16 / Featured

Giving names, respect, dignity to the victims

Justice of the peace reflects on his role in Sutherland Springs
Story & photos by Nannette Kilbey-Smith
Exclusive to the Wilson County News


Harold Schott spends a moment in quiet contemplation outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on a recent spring evening. The last time he sat near the church was Nov. 5, 2017, as he worked alongside law-enforcement personnel and first responders in the wake of the horrific shooting there. “Sheriff Tackitt came and sat next to me near the church,” recalled the Wilson County Pct. 3 justice of the peace. “We didn’t speak much. There were no words.” Harold Schott spends a moment in quiet contemplation outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on a recent spring evening. The last time he sat near the church was Nov. 5, 2017, as he worked alongside law-enforcement personnel and first responders in the wake of the horrific shooting there. “Sheriff Tackitt came and sat next to me near the church,” recalled the Wilson County Pct. 3 justice of the peace. “We didn’t speak much. There were no words.” The veteran lawman had seen a lot as a police officer.

But nothing could prepare him for that Sunday morning.

Harold Schott was the judge on call Nov. 5, 2017. He’d been to church with his wife, Lucy, and to the Wilson County Jail to magistrate several prisoners when the call came in.

“We probably had the toughest job there,” he reflected, his voice quiet.

“There” was the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.


“We didn’t know who everybody was,” recalls Wilson County Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Harold Schott. As he reflects in the memorial garden of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, he recalls each individual who became his “ward” as law-enforcement agencies investigated the worst mass shooting in modern Texas history. “We didn’t know who everybody was,” recalls Wilson County Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Harold Schott. As he reflects in the memorial garden of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, he recalls each individual who became his “ward” as law-enforcement agencies investigated the worst mass shooting in modern Texas history. “I wanted to ensure the victims were treated with the respect and dignity in death as they were in life.

“That’s what happened. That’s what their families would have expected.”

The justice of the peace for Wilson County’s Precinct 3 was contemplating his role last November.

His job was to determine the manner of death of the more than 20 victims of the lone gunman who opened fire on the church congregation during Sunday morning services.

Retired after three decades of service with the San Antonio Police Department and having served terms on the La Vernia City Council and two as mayor, Harold was only four months into his role as justice of the peace.

In that capacity, he was technically in charge of the scene once he arrived.

The judge’s role, according to Thea Whalen, executive director with the Texas Justice Court Training Center, is to “determine cause and manner of death” in deaths where an inquest is required. “It is a common misconception that the judge ‘pronounce’ a person deceased,” she clarified.

In cases such as Sutherland Springs, Whalen said, the judge conducts the investigation “as they see fit. This means working side-by-side with law enforcement, but functioning independently.”

“The JP and law enforcement have different and distinct roles,” Harold said.

As the officers worked to collect evidence and investigate the incident, Harold focused on identifying the victims.

“Those people became my wards,” he said.

His efforts were hampered by the enormity of the tragedy. There were so many victims, but no one to ask about identities. The survivors had been transported for medical care, many fighting for their lives.

“We didn’t know who everybody was,” Harold said. His voice grew quiet. “And there was nobody to ask.”

He settled in to his task.

With help from the FBI and Texas Rangers, as many as possible of the church members were identified at the scene.

At one point, he turned to find Sheryl Sachtleben, a justice of the peace in Guadalupe County, at the scene. She’d heard about the tragedy and knew Harold would need help.

“She said she wouldn’t leave until I gave her something to do,” he recalled. “I couldn’t have done it without her. She was invaluable. I couldn’t be everywhere at once.”

Help also came from a fellow Wilson County justice, C.J. Rutland.

Each set to part of the task at hand, identifying each victim, and maintaining a chain of custody.

The three worked steadily through the afternoon and through the night. They fought time, and waning light, and dying cell phones to accomplish the monumental task before them.

“Sheriff Tackitt came and sat next to me near the church,” Harold recalled. “We didn’t speak much. There were no words.”

Harold left the church around 2 a.m. Monday morning, physically and emotionally spent.

They weren’t finished, however.

“Autopsies were necessary on every victim,” said the 71-year-old judge.

They tracked each individual from the church to the medical examiner, and ultimately to funeral homes the families chose. Harold also eventually certified and signed each death certificate.

That, he said, brought a sense of closure for the families of the victims.

“I don’t know if I helped them at all,” Harold reflected. “It was just my job.

“You hope you’re doing it right. You do your best.”

Though he’s a former lawman, he’s also a father and grandfather. One of his grandchildren is the same age as one of the youngest victims.

That hit him hard.

“Grown-ups, that’s one thing,” he said, reflecting on what he encountered in the church. “But the kids … That was tough. You can’t reconcile it.”

Also hard has been reconciling what he witnessed last November with his Christian faith.

“That was the work of the devil in the house of the Lord,” he declared emphatically, adding that though he’s called to forgiveness by his faith, he’s found that a challenge.

Harold attended the funeral for the Holcombe family members. Joe Holcombe and his wife, Claryce, lost a son and daughter-in-law, a grandson and his toddler, a granddaughter- in- law and her unborn child, and three of her children in the horrific event.

“It was pretty hard to hear the family say they forgave the shooter,” Harold said quietly. “I admire them for it. I don’t know how they did it.”

To see the goodness in the family members who remain, he said, is inspiring.

In the months since, he’s worked to deal with all he witnessed and was called to do in the aftermath. His pastor, Bob Palan at Immanuel Lutheran Church in La Vernia, has helped.

“He’s taken real good care of me,” Harold said.

Everyone who had a role in Sutherland Springs that day will always carry it with them, Harold said.

As a lawman, a public servant, a father and grandfather, he hopes his efforts help prevent such tragedies — for his loved ones, or anyone.

“I’m glad they don’t have to see things like that,” Harold said. “I do that so they don’t have to.

“So you don’t have to.”

Serial servant

“I’ve been called a ‘fixer.’ I fix other people’s problems. I have had that ‘pleasure’ my entire career.”

Harold Schott’s rueful assessment rings with truth.

The serial public servant ruminated over tea at the Mesquite Bean one spring afternoon. He spent three decades with the San Antonio Police Department, where he saw the best and worst of humanity while working the city’s east side. But retirement didn’t mean an end of service. He ran for La Vernia City Council, serving as a councilman, and then as mayor.

As his wife, Lucy, approached retirement, he stepped down from public office, anticipating more time with her.

Former Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Jim Burdette approached him last spring, however, and asked if he’d step in to complete Burdette’s term of office. The judge wanted to retire, citing minor health issues.

Schott was appointed by the Wilson County Commissioners Court last July.

nkilbey-smith@wcn-online.com

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