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Survivor Looks Back in Anger on 1949 Massacre

Crime: When Howard Unruh ran amok in East Camden, N.J., 50 years ago, he killed 13 people in a shooting spree then considered the nation's worst mass murder.

October 03, 1999|MELANIE BURNEY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAMDEN, N.J. — The sounds of that September morning still haunt Charles Cohen.

The pounding feet on the apartment stairs. His mother screaming, "Hide, Charles! Hide!" The bullets streaming from Howard Unruh's gun.

The terrified 12-year-old dove into a closet as Unruh stalked the streets and shops of his East Camden neighborhood--and then the Cohens' apartment--in a 12-minute shooting spree that came to be called the "Walk of Death."

When the bullets ran out, 13 people were dead, including Cohen's parents and grandmother.

At the time, the Sept. 6, 1949, rampage was considered the nation's worst mass murder. Today, Unruh remains one of the century's most notorious killers.

"There's no positive history that could or should be ever said about somebody like that," said Camden County prosecutor Lee A. Solomon. "To the extent that he has a place in history with other monsters, I suppose he does."

Unruh, now 78, was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. He confessed to the killings but was judged mentally incompetent and was never tried.

He has spent the last 50 years in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, a state hospital for the criminally insane.

Once a year, a judge determines whether any changes should be made in his confinement conditions. The only changes have been small.

"I committed a horrible crime," he said during a hearing several years ago. Usually he doesn't speak at all.

Unruh declined an interview request, but a hospital volunteer who befriended him 16 years ago and visits regularly said Unruh is aware of the shooting anniversary.

"He realizes what he did was 100% wrong. He's sorry he did it," said Harry Rosell, 75, of Cherry Hill.

The victims were five men, five women and three children. Some Unruh knew and targeted; others were strangers he encountered on the street.

"Unfortunately, the victims' names are long forgotten and Unruh's lives in infamy," said Cohen, now 62 and a retired linen salesman. "My memories don't dim. Do you know how many times in 50 years I've relived that story?"

Unruh, then a 28-year-old World War II veteran and pharmacy student, planned the killings for more than a year. A recluse, he was convinced that his neighbors were ridiculing him and plotting against him.

"They have been making derogatory remarks about my character," Unruh told authorities after the attack. What set him off was discovering that someone had stolen his fence gate.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on the day after Labor Day, Unruh, armed with a war souvenir Luger and 33 rounds of ammunition, left the apartment he shared with his mother in their blue-collar neighborhood.

With calm and deadly precision, he carried out his execution plot.

As neighbors screamed and scrambled for cover, Unruh went to the shoe-repair shop and shot the cobbler. Next door, at the barbershop, he killed a 6-year-old boy on a hobbyhorse chair and then the barber. Next was the tailor, but he had left to run an errand, so Unruh shot his bride of six weeks.

Along the way, he shot randomly at people on the street: a man, two women and a 10-year-old boy died.

A tavern owner shot Unruh in the thigh from a second-story window, but Unruh continued walking.

Charles Cohen, in his family's apartment above their drugstore, thought he heard a car backfire. When he looked out the window, Unruh had just shot an insurance salesman.

Minutes later, his parents ran inside the apartment with Unruh close behind. His father, Maurice, leaped from a window onto a porch roof; his mother, Rose, screamed for Charles to hide.

Rose Cohen had angered Unruh for complaining that his radio was too loud. Charles had annoyed him by playing his trumpet.

As Charles hid in one closet and his mother cowered in another, his grandmother, Minne Cohen, 67, tried frantically to call police.

When the shooting ended, Charles emerged to find his 38-year-old mother dead in the closet where she had hidden, his 41-year-old father shot in the back and dead on the street below, and his grandmother fatally shot in the head and chest.

"It's just beyond anything anybody can imagine," Cohen said.

Unruh wounded two more people before returning to his apartment. He surrendered after police pumped tear gas into the building.

He told them he stopped shooting because he ran out of ammunition.

"I would have killed a thousand if I'd had bullets enough," he said.

Unruh was never prosecuted because he was declared mentally unfit to stand trial on 13 counts of murder and three counts of atrocious assault. The indictments were dismissed in 1980 after a judge ruled that he had been denied a speedy trial.

Cohen, meanwhile, has opposed all attempts to ease security restrictions on Unruh as he grows old.

"I don't want anyone to see him as a poor old man," Cohen said. "He's a mass killer that has outlived most of the families that he destroyed. I'm just waiting for the call that he's dead and I'll spit on his grave and that will be it."

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