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Gunman's careful plans went awry

Bruce Jeffrey Pardo apparently intended to flee. Badly burned in the Covina massacre, he later shot himself.

December 27, 2008|Tami Abdollah, Ari B. Bloomekatz and Hector Becerra

From his homemade incendiary device to his Santa Claus outfit, 45-year-old software engineer Bruce Jeffrey Pardo meticulously planned his Christmas Eve massacre.

He apparently planned his escape, booking a flight out of state.

But the firebomb Pardo set off melted the Santa suit into his flesh, causing third-degree burns and foiling his getaway.

Pardo's intent to flee rather than to kill himself, as he later did, was among the many developments presented by investigators and gleaned from court records and interviews with neighbors and family members Friday about the killings that horrified the country. A ninth body was discovered at the Covina home of Pardo's former in-laws.

Pardo had stormed his ex-wife's parents' annual holiday party and slaughtered revelers with a barrage of bullets before setting the home on fire.

The coroner has not identified the victims. But a relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the dead included Pardo's ex-wife, her parents, two of her brothers and their wives, a nephew and a sister.

Divorce records indicated a bitter split that climaxed Dec. 18 with a hearing in which Pardo's ex-wife, Sylvia, was granted a cash settlement and his beloved dog, Saki.

"From what I understand, at that hearing, it became very contentious," said Lt. Tim Doonan of the Covina Police Department. "It's possible he started planning this prior to last Thursday. But based on Thursday . . . it might have been the trigger."

A major reason for the divorce, according to a source close to the investigation, was Sylvia Pardo's discovery that Pardo had abandoned his son years before after the boy suffered brain damage in a near-drowning accident as the father baby-sat him.

Compounding her anger was that Pardo continued to use the child as a tax write-off for seven years. She demanded he stop claiming his son as a dependent.

Regardless of what happened in court, at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, Pardo arrived at the home of Joseph and Alicia Ortega, his ex-wife's parents.

Pardo had disguised a pressurized fuel tank as a Christmas package and responded to the 8-year-old girl who answered the door to Santa Claus with a blast from a semiautomatic handgun.

He entered the home, firing indiscriminately, before advancing more like a deliberate executioner.

"I need someone to come over and help my daughter!" the girl's mother can be heard screaming to a 911 police dispatcher, according to a transcript released Friday. "She's been shot on the side of the face."

The woman then tries to describe the shooter, saying she couldn't recognize him at first in his Santa outfit. The dispatcher asked her to identify the gunman.

"His name is Bruce Pardo," she said. "He's still shooting out there."

The dispatcher tells her to hold on for a second.

"Please," the woman begs, "I don't know who else is still alive."

After the shootings, Pardo sprayed what police described as high-octane racing fuel around the house and set it afire. An explosion rocked the structure.

Pardo fled with severe burns and his Santa outfit seared into his flesh, police said. He still had $17,000 in cash strapped to his body.

Driving 40 miles to Sylmar, he parked his rental car a block from his brother's house. He removed his shredded suit and used it to set up a booby trap in the vehicle, police said. If the suit was moved, trip wires would ignite a flash fire and explode 200 rounds of ammunition.

"This guy was sharp," Covina Police Chief Kim Raney said at a news conference Friday.

"He just had the expertise and the motivation to make a device that he could use for mass destruction," he said.

Pardo's death left investigators to search for clues in court records and the memories of surviving relatives and friends. A high school friend, Steve Erwin, said he spoke to Pardo just hours before the slayings, but had no real answers.

"I don't know why he snapped," Erwin said from his home in Iowa. The divorce and his fruitless job search -- he was fired in July -- weighed heavily on him, he said. "So he was just sitting at home, thinking about everything."

Erwin said Pardo had called him earlier in the week and told him he would visit him in Iowa for two weeks, starting on Christmas Day. Pardo told him he had a flight to Moline, Ill., and planned to drive to Iowa. But he never showed up, Erwin said. At an afternoon news conference, police said that Pardo had booked a flight to Canada.

The family tragedy that haunted Pardo and may have undone his marriage occurred on another winter day eight years before the killings on Knollcrest Drive. Pardo was then living in Calabasas with his girlfriend and their 13-month-old son, Bruce Matthew.

According to court records, on Jan. 8, 2001, the toddler, known as Matthew, fell into the couple's swimming pool while Pardo was supposed to be watching him. The child's mother, Elena Lucano, returned from grocery shopping to find Pardo in front of theTV and Matthew missing, her attorney said. Pardo pulled Matthew from the pool alive but gravely injured.

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