In what a prosecutor called a cowardly act, an inmate shot and injured two Coffee County Sheriff's Department deputies during a struggle at the courthouse Monday afternoon before fleeing and fatally shooting himself, authorities said.
The shooting shut down the Coffee County Justice Center here in this town 65 miles southeast of Nashville and led to an outpouring of support for the two wounded deputies.
"This is a difficult day for the citizens here in Coffee County," said Craig Northcott, the district attorney for the area.
Northcott identified the suspected shooter as Michael Eugene Bell, 37, and the wounded deputies as Wade Bassett, 71, and Wendell Bowen, 56.
Both deputies, who joined the department in 2015, were shot in the stomach and transported to hospitals in Nashville and Chattanooga for treatment.
As of late Monday, Bowen was in surgery at Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga. Bassett, who was wearing a bullet proof vest, was sent to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Family members praised Bowen, a father of two and grandfather of two boys and a girl.
“He never has a bad thing to say about anyone," said his cousin Lisa Sullenger as she waiting for news about his surgery. "Always there for his family.”
The first reports of the shooting came in around 3 p.m. Monday.
Bassett went to a third floor holding cell to transport Bell back to the jail after a morning court hearing, Northcott said. He was the lone officer on the third floor, authorities said.
At some point during the transfer, a "significant struggle" ensued, Northcott said. Bell grabbed Bassett's gun, shot the deputy one time, then headed for the first floor.
Before escaping the building, Bell took aim at Bowen, who sat in front of the courthouse, Sheriff's Capt. Danny Ferrell said at a news conference.
"In a very unnecessarily and cowardly way, (Bell) shot (Bowen) on the way out," Northcott said.
Bell then fled the area with law enforcement in pursuit.
Manchester resident PJ Stewart, 23, said he saw someone run out of the courthouse Monday afternoon who was barefoot and appeared to have a gun. Stewart, who lives on Madison Street near the courthouse, said the person ran through his yard.
Bell entered and exited a home few blocks away, Northcott said. He then entered the yard in another home before stopping and shooting himself in the head, Northcott said.
According to Monday’s Coffee County General Sessions Court docket, Bell had appeared before Judge Jere Ledsinger on charges of kidnapping, possession of a controlled substance, domestic assault and multiple counts of reckless endangerment by a motor vehicle and multiple counts of evading arrest.
Northcott said the kidnapping charge was in connection to a "domestic-related situation." Additional details of the charges were not immediately known.
A Coffee County jail spokesman said Bell had been held without bond.
Ferrell said the sheriff's office is reviewing its policies for how it transports inmates.
"Regardless of any policies, any procedures that need to be modified, there is no excuse for the behavior of Mr. Bell," Northcott said.
Local and state agencies continue to investigate the case. The courthouse is closed Tuesday.
Kirk Bado contributed to this report.
Reach Dave Boucher at 615-259-8892, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.