Webster (New York), Dec. 25: The gunman who killed two firefighters in an ambush yesterday in this drowsy town on the shores of Lake Ontario expressed a passion for killing and a desire to destroy as much of his neighbourhood as possible, the police said today.
The gunman, identified as William Spengler, 62, left behind a chilling typewritten note recovered by investigators, Gerald L. Pickering, the police chief in Webster, told reporters today. Chief Pickering, who described the writing as rambling, read just a portion of the note: “I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighbourhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best — killing people.”
Chief Pickering also said that it was likely that the gunman used a semi-automatic rifle, one of three weapons recovered from the shooting scene, to kill the firefighters. He identified the semi-automatic as a .223 Bushmaster rifle, the same weapon used in the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
The violence yesterday unfolded with a simple call to put out a car fire, the sort of routine job firefighters tackle all the time. The fire truck hurtled to the assignment early yesterday in a town that was preparing for the joys of Christmas.
But it apparently was a trap, the authorities said. There were a house and a car burning. There was also a waiting killer, who had stationed himself like a sniper on a berm above the firefighters.
Before they could begin to extinguish the flames, the firefighters were met by a burst of gunfire. Four were hit by the volley of bullets, and two died. An off-duty police officer from nearby Greece, New York, who was on his way to work, was wounded when he and his car were hit by shrapnel.
For a few hours, the scene was chaotic: flames ignited adjacent houses as the police frantically searched for the gunman, later identified as Spengler. They would find him dead near the beach, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Spengler had a lengthy criminal record and lived in the burning house. In 1981, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter for bludgeoning his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer. He was imprisoned until 1998.
He remained on supervised parole until 2006, and the Webster police said they had not had recent brushes with him. His mother, Arline, who lived in the same house, died this year. A former neighbour, Roger D. Vercruysse, said Spengler and his sister had also lived in the house, but “he stayed in one part with his mother and his sister stayed in the other part, and they never talked to each other”.
Spengler’s ire for his sister was matched by love for his mother, Vercruysse said.
Spengler did not seem to have a lot of friends, but “every time I needed help, he was there”, Vercruysse, 64, said, whether it was for shoveling snow or driving Vercruysse’s blind sister to the store. The police said they found Spengler with three weapons by his side, including the Bushmaster, a Smith and Wesson. .38-calibre revolver and a Mossberg 12-gauge pump shotgun. The authorities said that they did not know where he had got the weapons, but that there had been recent gun thefts in Monroe County, where Webster is. As a felon, Spengler was prohibited from owning guns.
The authorities said they were unaware of a motive, but Chief Pickering suggested that “there were certainly mental health issues involved”.
The episode comes a little over a week after the Newtown attack, and with the country engaged in an intense debate over gun control and care of the mentally ill. Grieving, Chief Pickering said in an interview: “We know that people are slipping through the cracks, not getting the help they need. And I suspect that this gentleman slipped through the cracks. Maybe he should have been under more intense supervision, maybe he should not have been in the public, maybe he should have been institutionalised, having his problems dealt with.”
The ambush shook residents of Webster, a town 12 miles northeast of Rochester.
“These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires,” Chief Pickering said of his lost firefighters. “They don’t expect to be shot and killed.”
At a news conference, he choked up repeatedly when giving the names of the crew members. The two men killed were Michael J. Chiapperini, 43, a local police lieutenant who owned a window-tinting business, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, a 911 dispatcher for Monroe County.
The two wounded firefighters, Theodore Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter, were listed in guarded to stable condition at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Hofstetter suffered an injury to his pelvis. Scardino was shot twice and had shoulder and lung wounds. The wounded off-duty officer, John Ritter, was treated and released from another hospital. Officer Ritter, in an interview today, said he was driving to work when he uknowingly came upon the shooting.
“I go up Lake Road,'’ he said. “I came around the corner and the fire truck is in the road backing up on the left. I hear popping. Pop, pop. Several pops. Suddenly my windshield explodes and there’s a hole right in front of my head. I was in shock. I bent over, leaned over into the passenger seat and slammed it in reverse around the corner,out of the line of sight.”