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Police find New York gunman's threatening note but no motive

A search of the burned-out home of William Spengler after his fatal attack on firefighters in Webster, N.Y., turns up a threatening but rambling note and human remains, possibly his sister's.

December 25, 2012|By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • Webster Police Lt. Joseph Rieger, left, and Monroe County Sheriff Deputy Chief Steve Scott flank photos of the dead and injured first responders at a news conference in Webster, N.Y. Authorities say William Spengler set a fire and shot at first responders, then killed himself as seven houses in his neighborhood burned.
Webster Police Lt. Joseph Rieger, left, and Monroe County Sheriff Deputy… (Marie De Jesus, Democrat…)

The New York felon who set a Christmas Eve trap for firefighters left a note saying he wanted to burn down the neighborhood and "do what I do best: killing people," police said Tuesday.

Investigators found human remains in the burned-out home of ex-con William Spengler, 62, a day after his rampage in Webster, a Rochester suburb. Officials said the remains probably were those of Spengler's missing sister, Cheryl, 67.

Spengler apparently set the blaze in or near his home and lay in wait, killing two firefighters and seriously wounding two more before taking his own life, officials said.

In his note, Spengler wrote, "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I do best: killing people," police said at a Christmas Day news conference.

Officers characterized the note as "rambling" and said it did not include a motive. They declined to release more excerpts Tuesday.

"Motive is always the burning question, and I'm not sure we'll ever really know what was going through his mind," Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering said.

Spengler appeared to have led an uneventful life for the last 14 years, but had a violent history: In 1980, he beat his grandmother to death with a hammer. He spent 18 years in prison and was released in 1998.

Monday's blaze — which officials think may have started as a vehicle fire — consumed seven homes and damaged two more in Webster, a sleepy community on the shores of Lake Ontario and Irondequoit Bay.

Police think Spengler used a military-style Bushmaster .223 rifle with a flash suppressor. They recovered the weapon along with a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver and a Mossberg pump-action 12-gauge shotgun.

As a felon, Spengler was barred from owning guns. Officials were unsure how he had obtained them, but said he was armed to the teeth.

"He was equipped to go to war and kill innocent people," Pickering said.

Spengler's attack would mark the third time in two weeks that a gunman had attempted a mass killing with an assault rifle. On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza killed 20 grade-school students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., using a military-style Bushmaster .223 rifle. Lanza also killed his mother and himself. On Dec. 11, Jacob Tyler Roberts opened fire in a Clackamas, Ore., mall with an AR-15-style rifle, killing two and wounding one before taking his own life.

The discovery that Spengler had a Bushmaster is likely to intensify the outcry for tighter gun controls that followed the Newtown massacre. The gun, which looks like a military assault rifle, also was used in the 2002 sniper attacks that left 10 dead and three wounded in the Washington, D.C., area.

President Obama is expected to begin pushing for specific gun control measures, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, after he receives recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden in January. The National Rifle Assn., the nation's most powerful gun lobby, has vowed to fight any attempts to curtail gun ownership.

In Webster, during the first of two news conferences on Christmas Day, officials described Monday's chaotic "combat situation." Firefighters were targeted before getting out of their trucks, police said, and a Webster police officer used his duty rifle to trade fire with Spengler.

Rounds shattered the windshield of the firetruck that two of the firefighters were in; the wounded driver crashed trying to get away.

"Had that police officer not been there, more people would have been killed, because he immediately engaged the shooter," Pickering said of the officer, who has not been identified.

Another police officer from nearby Greece, N.Y., Jon Ritter, was driving behind the firetruck when he also came under fire. He was wounded by shrapnel from the bullets that struck his windshield and engine block, police said.

Ritter "tried to shelter some of the fallen firemen with his car when the other firefighters — that we later extracted from the location with the armored personnel carrier — had taken cover under the firetruck," Pickering said.

The two wounded firefighters remained in intensive care and were described as stable.

Officials said that 33 neighborhood residents had been displaced by the blaze and the investigation and that hotels had offered them places to stay.

"We all have been inundated from citizens, police agencies across the nation and really across the world, wanting to provide donations," Pickering said. The outpouring "has been incredible."

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Times staff writer John Hoeffel in Naples, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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