Interview with Judge Bishop

Tornado- December 10, 2021

On December 10, 2021, an EF4 tornado traveled a 166 mile path along Western Kentucky that caused heavy damage to several towns, including Mayfield, Princeton, Dawson Springs, and Bremen.  Another EF-3 tornado started in Dyer County, TN and traveled 123 miles through northwest Tennessee into Christian, Todd, Logan, and Warren Counties.  This was part of a larger outbreak of tornados caused 88 fatalities, over 634 injuries and approximately $3.9 billion in property damage. 

There were direct impacts upon Kentucky’s Court System, including the death of District Judge Brian Crick of the 45th District (Muhlenberg and McClean).  Also, the Graves County Justice Center was destroyed.  I asked 52nd Judicial Circuit Judge Kevin Bishop to talk about what happened.

Q-What happened leading up to the tornado?

  1. On Friday, December 10, 2021, the Grand Jury met in the morning until around noon.  Indictments were returned in open court.  That afternoon the clerk and pretrial services met with me, and I set bonds on the 34 indictments.  At around 5:30 p.m. my wife called me and told me to get home as a strong storm was coming including tornadoes.  I told her I would be leaving in a minute.  A few seconds after that call, the tornado sirens went off.  I went home.  My wife, adult daughter and granddaughter watched channel 6 television weather updates which were pretty much non-stop.  At one point, one of the weather reporters stated that he could not see a tornado.  The other weather reporter went to their monitor and said this whole thing is a tornado with a base of almost one mile wide. That was the moment of realization that we were in for something we had never experienced.

     At that point, we took up a position in our smallest bathroom. We put my 8-year-old granddaughter, with her bicycle helmet on, into the bathtub and covered her up with pillows and blankets. My wife, daughter, granddaughter, dog and cats huddled in the bathroom. The electricity went out.  We prayed.  I never heard a locomotive sound or anything like that.  I simply heard tremendous wind and occasionally would hear thumps. We prayed.  While it lasted only four minutes, this was the longest four minutes of my life.  After the wind, there was complete silence.  We sat there for a few more minutes and then left the safety of the bathroom to see what damage we had.

     I took a flashlight and walked outside around the perimeter of our home.  While I could see shingles missing and shingles standing straight up, I did not see any gaping holes.  I had trees down everywhere in my yard and two trees across my driveway.  I went back inside. 

     A few minutes later, my daughter told me someone was driving up the driveway.  I said I don’t know how as there are two trees across it.  I grabbed a flashlight and went back outside.  By this time, a vehicle was at the top of the driveway and could see me coming with a flashlight. The vehicle quickly turned around and started to leave.  I went after it with my flashlight with the beam hitting the rearview mirror.  It was a black Dodge Dart.  I do not know anyone owning such a vehicle.  The vehicle stopped in the same ruts it had made coming up through the yard.  I stood behind the driver’s door and shined my flashlight inside the vehicle and asked the two males (I believe under the age of 25) if I could help them. The driver said, “we’re just checking on you folks”.  I said, “we’re fine”.  The driver then said do you want us to cut these trees out of your driveway.  I asked, “with what?”  The driver then picked up a battery powered reciprocating saw from his lap. I said “no, get out of here.”  They drove off and my immediate thoughts were, “and so it begins.”

     We had no electricity and no water.  Electricity was off for three days and water was off for seven days.  My internet provider was out from December 10, 2021 until January 8, 2022.

     Around midnight on December 10, 2021, my sheriff called me and told me if I wanted to save anything, then I needed to get to the courthouse.  I drove towards downtown. State Route 58 was covered with downed lines, poles, and trees.  I dodged and ran over things to get to the US 45 bypass.  A police officer had his cruiser’s lights on stopping everyone from going further.  When he recognized me, he said go ahead as he thought I could make it down East Broadway by zigzagging around debris and downed lines.

     I arrived at the courthouse and went to the southside as it seemed more stable.  I met the sheriff, and we went to my chambers. I retrieved the three laptops which were used by my staff and myself.  I retrieved my law degree and college degrees and a few other items by carrying them up two and a half flights of stairs which were covered in broken glass.  I later went over to see about city hall which was heavily damaged.  I went home at 3:30 a.m. 

Q-  Can you talk about what happened with getting dealing with the destruction of the courthouse ?

A-The next day I went to the courthouse and met my Regional AOC Security Officer Jason Kirk who had called me on the night of the tornado.  On Sunday, the Chief Justice and an AOC team came down.  The Chief entered an Order shutting down the court system in Graves County pending further orders.  I entered an order so all staff would still be paid.  The Chief and the AOC team helped load up some of the dry items in my chambers.  A friend called me and advised of a possible location for temporary facilities.  The Chief Justice and the AOC team and I went to inspect the location and were able to secure it.  This was two days after the event.

An AOC moving team was scheduled to be in Mayfield on Monday morning.  On Sunday night, despite the massive Mayfield water tower being crushed like an aluminum can, the water was turned back on.  Monday morning as I was driving through rubble towards the Courthouse, my clerk called me and advised there was water knee deep in the basement which housed three decades of files.  The circuit clerk’s office’s files which were in her office were also wet.  This total was somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand cases.  This included all open files in all divisions of Circuit and District Court.

All files were packaged up by ServePro.  The wet files were frozen and shipped to Detroit, Michigan for processing.  We do not know when we will receive the files.  It is anticipated we may receive some by the end of March.

Q- How were you able to get things back up and running ?

     In 20 business days after the tornado, with tremendous effort by everyone in AOC, we were open for business.  My circuit clerk is in my future courtroom with folding tables and computer wiring duct taped to the floor.  My office is in a 12 ft. x 14 ft. room with paper thin walls.  My District Judge is in the next office. Both of us can hear each other holding virtual court.

Q-  How are you managing things now ?

     I have taken the dockets I missed in December and January and sliced and diced them.  I now hold criminal court daily with approximately 35 cases per day.  As you can imagine, the parties have been unable to complete discovery, negotiate plea offers, and visit all inmates who are now spread out across the Commonwealth.  So, now when defense counsel appears and asks for more time, I give them a date in July.  It is hoped by July, I will have a better idea as to when my courtroom will be available so I can schedule jury trial dates.

     In the interim, I schedule domestic and civil hearings and trials in either Marshall or Calloway Circuit or Family Courts.  While I have had offers from many judges to hold court in nearby counties, the travel time from Mayfield to Benton or Murray is the shortest.

     My circuit clerk and staff have been amazing in this situation.  My staff sometimes must work remotely from home.  I review what paperwork I have available for each case.  Most of the time, the filing is lacking.  We request copies of the indictment and the plea paperwork in most cases.  For domestic and civil cases, I request the lawyers email scanned copies of the pleadings to my office prior to a hearing.

Q- What would you suggest to other judges about preparing for a natural disaster?

     If you are a sitting Circuit Judge and have not initiated automatic saving of digital work to One Drive, then I highly recommend you do so now.  Fortunately, the three wet laptops booted up in a few days and all the data was still there.  The next step for me was to set up One Drive.


     Nine of the eleven law firms in Mayfield, Kentucky were destroyed by the same tornado which destroyed the Graves County Courthouse. So, lawyers are spread out in multiple temporary locations.  471 families were immediately displaced.  The area of impact looks like a war zone.  It is disheartening. 

     I have seen the worst of society in the aftermath, and I have seen the best of humanity in the tremendous outpouring of prayers and support.  It is anticipated it will take four years to build a new judicial center. Many decisions will have to be made.  This will simply take time.

What else would you like to share ?