National News


Posted January 3, 2018 4:54 p.m. EST

It was "cryptic notes" scattered around a Tomball man's downtown Houston hotel room - along with a stash of guns and ammo - that sparked concerns of a possible Las Vegas-type shooting plot on New Year's Eve, a top county prosecutor said Tuesday.

Two days later, that fear has all but fizzled out.

Russell Lawrence Ziemba was arrested Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Houston after hotel staff called police over Ziemba's allegedly drunken behavior - and officers then found an AR-15 military-style rifle, along with a shotgun, a handgun and some ammunition in his hotel room.

He is set to appear before a judge Wednesday on charges of allegedly assaulting a Houston police officer during his arrest in the hotel lobby.

The 49-year-old Tomball man was charged with trespassing at the hotel, after police alleged he would not leave after officers ordered him to.

Concerns about Ziemba's intent with the trio of weapons, however, led prosecutors to request a magistrate to order an extraordinarily high $500,000 bail late Monday. Experts described the high bail request as a de facto pretrial detention order, issued only when a person's release from jail would pose a significant public safety threat. Zeimba's bail was ultimately set at $105,000, after the court heard about the long-time machinist's honorable Army service during which he was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery.

On Tuesday, Harris County First Assistant District Attorney Tom Berg explained the pieces of information that factored into such a rare request by prosecutors. He made it clear that, by now, authorities have moved further away from the belief that Ziemba was possibly plotting to harm anyone at a hotel that was hosting a large New Year's Eve event.

But at first, a confluence of suspicious activity had investigators on high alert.

Lobby disturbance

Police showed up around 1:30 a.m. Sunday to handle a belligerent man who'd been drinking at the hotel bar. He reeked of alcohol and slurred his speech, according to a statement read in court late Monday.

After causing problems in the lobby, Ziemba returned to his room on the 28th floor of the high rise at 1200 Louisiana in the heard of downtown. Minutes later, police were summoned upstairs to investigate guest complaints.

The responding officer didn't find anything on the 28th floor, but as he headed back downstairs he ran into a couple in the elevator complaining about a man in the lobby.

Downstairs, the on-duty manager told Ziemba he needed to leave and police escorted him to his room to retrieve his belongings. As he packed his clothes, the officer spotted several shotgun shells and a magazine for an assault rifle on a desk near the TV.

When Ziemba got back downstairs, he allegedly refused to leave the building, triggering the trespassing charge. In the lobby, authorities said, he refused to put his hands behind his back and struggled with police, allegedly kicking one before several officers subdued him.

In addition to the weapons recovered during his arrest, Berg said police also found pieces of paper with "cryptic notes" written on them in the hotel room, including one that simply said "f*** it."

Taken all together, Berg said, prosecutors felt the safest option would be to keep Ziemba detained by requesting a high bail amount while local and federal investigators sought answers - and they had to wait hours for him to sober up.

"There was a legitimate public safety concern," Berg said. "At the onset, people had visions of Las Vegas, and quite fortunately those didn't pan out, but the initial impulse was there. At that point, he hadn't been interviewed by the feds conclusively, and his intent had not been established. There were lots of questions. I think many of those questions are now answered."

The FBI also confirmed Tuesday that, after joining the Houston Police Department in the investigation early on, the agency was no longer assisting on the case, given no federal charges were warranted.

Weapons legally owned

According to HPD, investigators learned through interviews with Ziemba and his wife that he had kept his guns in the hotel room because he was concerned they could be stolen from his vehicle. The weapons were legally owned, police said.

Berg said the fact that he was out on bond for another weapons offense - unlawful carry of a handgun - also contributed to prosecutors' decision to request a higher bail amount.

Ziemba was arrested two days before Christmas for allegedly keeping a handgun in plain view in his vehicle; he made a $1,000 surety bond in that case before being arrested at the Hyatt on Dec. 31. He was charged once before with a weapons offense in 2014, but that unlawful carry charge was dropped when he was convicted of driving while intoxicated.

Ziemba is set to appear in court on the felony charge of assaulting a public servant Wednesday in the 230th state district court. No attorney is listed, though the attorney representing him for the misdemeanor charge of trespassing, Dan Richard, said he will have an opportunity to contest his bail before the judge.

Despite the fact that authorities don't appear to believe any longer that Ziemba intended to hurt people during the Hyatt's New Year's celebration, he remains detained on the $105,000 bail.

Berg said Ziemba's attorney may seek a reduction in bail tomorrow, but that overall prosecutors at the onset sought to be safer rather than sorry due to their concerns over the potential for a mass shooting.

"Drunks with guns are different than drunks without guns," he said.