A FORMER convict shot and killed two firefighters after luring them to a blaze in New York state on Christmas Eve, in the latest deadly gun attack in the United States.
William Spengler, 62, set a house and car on fire in the town of Webster where he lived, fired on emergency services, then engaged police in a shoot-out before taking his own life.
Authorities said Spengler had attracted little attention since he was released from prison in the 1990s. He had served 17 years for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death in 1980.
Police said he shot at arriving firefighters, probably with a rifle. “It does appear it was a trap,” the town’s police chief, Gerald Pickering, said. “These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires. They don’t expect to be shot and killed.”
About 100 people attended an impromptu memorial vigil on Monday evening in Webster. Dozens of bouquets were left at the fire station, along with a handwritten sign that said, “Thanks for protecting us. RIP.”
Spengler had been living in Webster with his mother and sister since his parole in 1998.
In October, his mother died, leaving the ex-con in the house near Lake Ontario with his sister – a friend said he “could not stand” her. She has been missing since the shootings.
Spengler fired at four firefighters when they arrived shortly after 5:30am. The first police officer on the scene chased the gunman and they exchanged shots.
An armoured vehicle was used to help residents flee dozens of homes on the shore of Lake Ontario. Police restricted access to the neighbourhood, and officials said it was unclear whether there were other bodies in the seven houses set alight during the blaze.
Authorities said Spengler had done nothing to bring himself to their attention since his parole and, as a convicted felon, he was not allowed to possess weapons. Monroe County district attorney Sandra Doorley said Spengler had led a very quiet life since he got out of jail.
However, a friend said Spengler hated his sister. Roger Vercruysse, who lived next door, added: “He loved his mama to death.”
Two of the firefighters arrived on a fire engine and two in their own vehicles, Mr Pickering said. After Spengler fired, one of the wounded men fled. The police officer who exchanged gunfire with Spengler “in all likelihood saved many lives”, he added.
The gunfire initially kept firefighters from battling the blazes, and a total of 33 people were removed from nearby homes by the armoured vehicle.
The dead men were identified as Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19.
Mr Pickering described Mr Chiapperini as a “lifetime firefighter” with nearly 20 years in the department, and he called Mr Kaczowka a “tremendous young man”.
The two wounded men, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino, remained in hospital yesterday. Both were awake and alert and were expected to recover. The former was hit once in the pelvis, and the bullet lodged in his spine.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo said the state police and Office of Emergency Management had been working with local authorities.
“Volunteer firefighters and police officers were injured and two were taken from us as they once again answered the call of duty,” Mr Cuomo said.
“We, as the community of New York, mourn their loss as now two more families must spend the holidays without their loved ones.”