Ken Combs of Combs Reporting, Shares His Heart-Stopping Tales From a 1970’s Courtroom

Do you think court reporting sounds boring? Those familiar with the profession can tell you it is definitely not! A court reporter San Francisco could witness many shocking events in the course of his or her career. In some cases, stenographers have been thrust directly into the action. Such is the case of Ken Combs, co-founder of Combs Reporting. On Aug. 7, 1979, Combs worked on a court reporting job that would change his life forever.

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It Started Off as a Regular Day

Combs entered the Marin County courtroom that day to do one thing: Prepare a trial transcript. It seemed like a normal day for a court reporter Concord. Combs was taking notes on a case involving a prisoner accused of stabbing a guard. This was a fairly routine case out of San Quentin State Prison. Nothing out of the ordinary was expected.

A Firearm Puts a Period on the Transcript

Combs worked steadily on the transcript up to the point when chaos erupted. He recalls typing “a voice from the audience” and looking up to identify the speaker. He then realized a tall, young man was pointing a gun towards the front of the court. In this terrifying moment, Combs understood the man’s words, “just hold it right there.” At this point, there was no doubt that something was amiss.

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Quick Decision Making

Everyone in the courtroom immediately realized the danger. Like any good reporter, Combs considered continuing on with the transcript. However, he recalls being so nervous that everything he typed was illegible. He also considered making a quick escape through the rear entrance of the room. Yet, in the end, Combs determined the best course of action was to hit the floor as the gunman demanded.

A Bad Situation Gets Worse

As if one enraged gunman wasn’t enough, the circumstances became a lot more dangerous. The gunman, the brother of an inmate at Soledad Prison, armed the prisoners in the courtroom. Combs remembers remaining completely still while the gunmen barked orders to courtroom staff. He also recalls hearing demands to release the shackled inmate on the stand, and those in the holding cell. The scenario quickly changed from just one gunman to several.

The situation soon became a lot more personal for Combs. He recounts hearing footsteps nearby as he lay face down. One of the prisoners instructed the judge to call the sheriff. As the judge complied, Combs began thinking about how his family would survive in the event that he didn’t. Combs was pulled from his thoughts by an abrupt touch on the shoulder.

Combs looked up to see the testifying prisoner (Ruchell Magee) shouting at him. Magee made Combs stand up to restrain his hands with wire. While noticing that all the prisoners had become armed, Combs made a life-saving decision: He held his hands apart while the prisoner secured them with wire. Combs was then attached to four jurors by a long wire.

At this point, Combs was forced to stand in the middle of the courtroom with Judge Harold J. Haley. As the two stood face to face, Combs noticed a shotgun had been fixed against the bottom of the judge’s chin. A nearby prisoner held the trigger.

Combs then felt a handgun placed against his own head. Magee spoke to him amidst the tumultuous shrieks in the courtroom. Combs could see that the situation had evolved into total commotion. He tried to take advantage of the situation by moving his hands together to dislodge the makeshift handcuffs. As he did so, Judge Haley gave him a stoic nod of approval. Next, Combs fell to the floor fearing he had been detected by the prisoners.

Silence in Mayhem

Once he returned to his prone position, Combs remembers hearing the courtroom door open as a wave of silence flooded in. He noticed that only a few people remained in the room. The judge, and the chained group of jurors had been escorted into the hallway.
After confirming the prisoners had left the room, Combs seized on another opportunity.

Combs left the remaining hostages in the courtroom and went to check adjoining rooms. He found that no dangerous prisoners lurked in the judge’s chambers. Quickly, he returned to the courtroom and took everyone into the chambers. Gunfire soon erupted outside.

When the gunfire ceased, Combs looked out the window to see a blood-drenched scene. Police surrounded the prisoners’ getaway van. A majority of the escaped prisoners were killed in the gunfire exchange. Combs later learned that only Magee survived with serious injuries.

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The Aftermath

It’s clear that Combs went beyond the call of duty in helping the other hostages. Yet, despite this horrifying experience, his work wasn’t done. Once the remaining hostages were escorted from the chambers, Combs was called back into court. A replacement judge had been called to the bench to complete the trial record for the day. Combs had to summon an amazing amount of courage to return to the scene of the event and perform his role as a court reporter in San Francisco. In hindsight, Combs states that he was in no condition to perform stenography. However, it was necessary at the time. Combs closed out the record by transcribing the judge’s declaration of a mistrial.

Unfortunately, many innocent people were affected by the event. Judge Haley was killed by the prisoners. The Assistant District Attorney was paralyzed by a gunshot. Two of the jurors also suffered wounds from the gunfire. The day took a toll on many unsuspecting victims.

The heroic reporter, Ken Combs, continues to suffer from the effects of this experience. Following this incident, he continued his involvement in court reporting. He later founded Combs Reporting in conjunction with his son, Todd.

Finding a dedicated court reporter or deposition interpreter can be difficult. Combs Reporting makes the process easier by supplying you with the right professional for your needs. Contact Combs today for further information.

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