The man who blasted his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom more than a year ago, armed with a shotgun, smoke bombs and a device that blocked his victims from fleeing, pleaded guilty Monday to an attack that left five people dead and a close-knit community shaken.
Now, however, a jury must decide whether he is criminally responsible for his actions.
Jarrod Ramos, 39, of Laurel, responded to questions from Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Laura Ripken who later accepted the plea. When Ripken asked if he is in fact guilty of the June 2018 attack, he responded, “Yes, I am,” calmly and clearly with his arms folded behind his back. He wore a green jail jumpsuit, had a scraggly beard with his hair tied in a ponytail.
Ramos pleaded guilty to all 23 counts against him.
The plea comes just a week before a two-part trial was scheduled to begin that would determine whether Ramos was guilty, and then whether he is criminally responsible for his actions. With his guilt now determined, a jury will be tasked with deciding whether Ramos was mentally fit under the law to be held responsible for the mass shooting.
Ramos has pleaded not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of the insanity plea — while prosecutors say a state mental health examiner has found he was legally sane at the time of the crime.
Potential jurors still must appear in court Wednesday for jury selection for the trial’s second phase to decide whether Ramos will be confined to a state prison or committed indefinitely to a state psychiatric facility.
Ramos pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Wendi Winters, who died at the scene, and Rebecca Smith, who died at the hospital later in surgery.
Six other employees inside the newsroom survived either by fleeing or hiding from Ramos.
"It seemed like he was clearing the room of people, shooting them as he saw,” according to testimony photographer Paul Gillespie would have given. The statement, and other details, were included in prosecutors’ prepared statement of facts that were read out loud by Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess.
Some of the victims’ family members and newspaper staff held each other for support as Leitess recited the details. Some reached for tissues. They remained silent.
Ramos arrived at the Capital Gazette building on June 28, 2018, in a car he rented days before the shooting, Leitess said. Prosecutors said he parked his car, left a duffel bag at the back door, deployed a smoke grenade and inserted a barricade device at the Capital Gazette back door.
Tucked into the grip of the shotgun, authorities found a small piece of paper with a quote from Terry Nichols, co-author of a book about active shooters, Leitess said.
“There are very few problems in the world that cannot be solved by clear and concise communication; the remaining problems can be solved with the proper placement and application of high explosives,” it read.
Video inside the newsroom showed the back door barricaded. He deployed a smoke grenade in a hallway and checked the flashlight and laser sight on his shotgun.
When Ramos arrived at the front door of the newsroom and found it locked, Leitess said, “he stepped back, pointed the shotgun and discharged his first round through the glass door, shattering it to pieces.”
Leitess detailed how Ramos moved through the newsroom, shooting five staffers while others tried to escape or hide under their desks. He first encountered Smith, who shouted “no, no, no, no." As Smith attempted to climb over her desk, she was shot from behind, Leitess said.
As he went about the newsroom, Winters tried to stop Ramos, charging him with her trash can and recycling bin, Leitess said.
Ramos discarded some of his equipment — an ammunition belt, shooters glasses and orange earplugs — as he continued.
After he stopped firing, Ramos called 911 from the newsroom and told an operator about the shooting, including the address: 888 Bestgate Road, Leitess said. But because the Capital Gazette’s phone lines were routed through the Baltimore Sun’s office, his call left the Baltimore 911 operator confused. The Capital Gazette is owned by Baltimore Sun Media.
"This is your shooter. The shooting is over. I surrender,” Ramos said, according to Leitess.
Ramos hid as Anne Arundel police officers and sheriff’s deputies and started helping newspaper staffers from the building and instructing them repeatedly to avoid the bodies of slain coworkers, Leitess said.
Police found Ramos lying silently and face down under a desk. He was in the newsroom for a total of 19 minutes, and remained hidden for about six minutes after officers arrived, according to the facts read in court.
Once in custody, authorities asked Ramos for his name, she said.
“You don’t know my name?” he responded, before telling law enforcement to ask Capital Gazette staffers, including editor Rick Hutzell and former publisher Tim Thomas, now vice president of business development at Baltimore Sun Media. “As far as I know Rick Hutzell is still alive.”
Ramos mailed multiple letters the day of the shooting referencing two lawsuits stemming from a harassment case filed against Ramos by a woman who said she was threatened and scared of the man. The lawsuit and Ramos’ actions were reported by the Capital Gazette in a 2011 column. In response to the column, Ramos wrote angry letters to the newspaper and filed rounds of lawsuits, claiming defamation.
In Ramos apartment, detectives found a CD with computer files that included photos of newspaper staffers, articles that listed their names and a video surveillance Ramos captured of the office’s back hallway, Leitess said.
“Some labels indicate that persons depicted are ‘High Value Targets," she said.
They also recovered boxes of Fiocchi ammunition — 12-gauge buckshot, each shell 2 and 3/4 inches long and containing nine pellets — and the dummy shells he used to practice loading and unloading the long gun.
Ramos’ guilty plea follows more than a year of pretrial hearings — and various delays — where prosecutors and defense attorneys argued about what evidence and witnesses would be allowed at trial. Ripken ruled that prosecutors could show what they described as damning security footage of Ramos working the pump on his shotgun and “methodically hunting,” as employees hid or fled for their lives.
Forensic doctors with the Maryland Department of Health evaluated Ramos and wrote that he was legally sane when he committed the crimes. Mental health experts hired by Ramos’ team of public defenders reached a different conclusion, setting the stage for a contested second-phase of his trial.
The shooting shook the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County community, as citizens came out in droves to memorial services, vigils and concerts arranged to honor the victims. Employees made sure the newspaper didn’t miss an edition and saw the paper draw national attention for continuing its mission in the wake of tragedy.
Prosecutors indicated early on they were seeking five life sentences without the possibility of parole for Ramos.
Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.