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Courthouse shooting suspect is familiar to court officials

Minneapolis, Minn. — (AP) - The woman being held in the shootings of two people at the Hennepin County courthouse had a reputation among court officials and relatives for erratic behavior.

"Sometimes we call them nuisance litigants, and that's essentially what she was," said Gregg Johnson, assistant chief judge of Ramsey County.

In May last year, a Ramsey County court reporter complained that Susan Berkovitz had become "extremely harassing and offensive" in phone messages left to complain about the accuracy of a court transcript.

Four months later, in a hearing before Ramsey Country District Judge Margaret Marrinan, a deputy sheriff felt the need to move closer to Berkovitz because of her increasingly excitable tone "and out of concern for the judge and other court staff."

Last January, in a court hearing on her lawsuit against shooting victims Richard Hendrickson and Shelley Joseph-Kordell, Hennepin County District Judge H. Peter Albrecht said he didn't understand what the lawsuit was about and openly questioned Berkovitz's mental state.

"The problem is I cannot make heads or tails of what your claim is," Albrecht told Berkovitz. "I'm dismissing your cause of action in this court."

Asked to sanction her, Albrecht responded: "I'm finding that from what little I can tell, she is not of sound mind. ... It just seems she has no idea what she is doing or what is happening here."

Without a husband, children or a job, Berkovitz devoted much of her life to her parents, living for 41 years in their modest St. Paul home. But to get away from her, her parents actually moved to California.

Robert Berkovitz, of Mesa, Ariz., said their parents, Hyman and Anna, moved into an apartment in 2000 as his health declined, but Susan refused to leave the family home, which was later sold. A prolonged legal battle ensued over the parents' home and savings, worth about $170,000.

The elderly pair moved to Los Angeles in July 2002.

Susan Berkowitz charged that her father was "taken out of his apartment in the middle of the night" and moved to California. But the courts ruled instead that it was Berkovitz who "drove her mother ... out of the state of Minnesota to California."

The shootings happened before a hearing scheduled for Monday. It was set after Berkovitz was initially denied restraining orders she sought against Joseph-Kordell, her cousin and the conservator of her father's estate, and Hendrickson, the conservator's lawyer. Joseph-Kordell was killed in the shooting; Hendrickson was in serious condition at Hennepin County Medical Center.

In court documents, Berkovitz accused the two of harassing her and in some cases physically threatening her. Among Berkovitz's claims in previous documents was that Joseph-Kordell and Hendrickson had misappropriated $190,000 from the estate of her father, Hyman Berkovitz, who died in July.

"Mr. Hendrickson has repeatedly called my home, leaving unprofessional voicemails threatening to come to my job and confront me," Berkovitz wrote in her requests. Later, Berkovitz wrote that Hendrickson "advanced on me with his fist balled up, in order to intimidate me and imply he would physically harm me."

Monday's shootings took place before Hendrickson and Joseph-Kordell could rebut Berkovitz's accusations.

Court documents tell the tale of a power struggle between Berkovitz and the rest of her family over who should be the conservator of her father's estate.

In hearings on the matter, Joseph-Kordell asked that, if appointed conservator, she be allowed to limit Berkovitz's contact with her father, saying she feared for his safety.

After Joseph-Kordell was appointed conservator in July 2001, relations between Susan Berkovitz on one side and Joseph-Kordell and Berkovitz's other relatives on the other deteriorated further.

As a result of the number of frivolous documents filed in Ramsey County, an order signed May 14, 2003, by Johnson, ordered Berkovitz to contact him first if she wanted to file anything or contact court staff about the legal control of the estate.

The order states that Berkovitz agreed to abide by the restrictions.

Hennepin County officials were considering a similar measure, said Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke.

Some who have dealt with Berkovitz said that despite her erratic and litigious nature, there were no warnings of the level of violence she is now suspected of.

"She is one of those people who can be excitable. But when you pulled (her) back, she followed directions," Marrinan said. "I would not have predicted violence."

Frederick Kopplin, who represented Anna Berkovitz when she sought a restraining order against her daughter in 2000, said that until Monday, he never knew of an instance when she had become violent.

"Everything was verbal or written and was often incoherent," he said. "But there had never been any physical violence."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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