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N.Y. firefighter ambush: Killer said to be 'crazy about his mama'

December 25, 2012|By John Hoeffel
  • A house burns in Webster, N.Y., after an ex-convict set a car ablaze in his lakeside neighborhood to lure firefighters, then opened fire. He killed two and seriously wounded two more before killing himself.
A house burns in Webster, N.Y., after an ex-convict set a car ablaze in his… (Jamie Germano / Associated…)

WEBSTER, N.Y. -- William Spengler was known to his neighbors as the man who killed his 92-year-old grandmother with a hammer in 1980. He was also known as a quiet, nice guy.

Spengler, 62, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after laying a trap Monday for local firefighters who responded to a blaze at his home on a slender spit of land here. He shot and killed two firefighters and seriously wounded two more. A police officer also was injured, and Spengler's sister, who lived with him at the home, was unaccounted for.

After he got out of prison in 1998 and returned to the same neighborhood where he'd killed his grandmother, neighbors gossiped about his comings and goings. Fourteen years later, some of those tensions lingered, but Spengler seemed to be going about his life. Officials said his time on parole had been uneventful.

Roger D. Vercruysse, who lived next door to Spengler in 2004 and 2005, said they met almost daily and would sit across the road from their bayside homes at a picnic table under a weeping willow near Lake Ontario, discussing “just the different things going on, men’s talk.”

The neighborhood is a mixture of old lakeside cottages and new, larger, modern homes. In the summer, the swing bridge stays open so boats can get and out of the bay, turning the two sides into cul-de-sacs with almost no traffic.

That scene turned nightmarish on Christmas Eve when seven homes burned down in Spengler's attack and neighbors had to be evacuated in a SWAT armored vehicle. Officials didn't know what his motive was or where he got his guns, which he apparently stashed near his home in preparation for the ambush.

Vercruysse said Spengler, whom he knew as Billy, “was crazy about his mama” but despised his sister. “He always told me he hated his sister,” he said. “We talked all the time. He seemed normal to me. The only thing I couldn’t get out of him -- why he hated his sister.”

A local obituary notice for Spengler's mother, Arline, said she died Oct. 7 at age 92. It identified Spengler's sister as Cheryl.

Vercruysse said he saw Spengler about a year and a half ago and nothing seemed amiss. He wondered whether the recent death of his mother might have triggered the shooting.

He said he did not know Spengler’s sister. “She wasn’t very friendly to me, and none of us over there,” he said. “I waved to her and she didn’t wave to me.”

Spengler, who liked to sip Mountain Dew and smoke cigarettes, appeared happy, Vercruysse said, but did not seem to have other friends. He said Spengler never mentioned anything about guns and that he had never been inside Spengler’s house.

“The only thing, he dressed like a bum, long hair and raggedly clothes,” he said. “I used to call him a hippie. He used to say, ‘Oh, Rog, this is my style.’”

Vercruysse said he didn’t think that Spengler, as an ex-con, was able to find a job. Instead, he spent his time puttering around his mother’s house. He said Spengler frequently came over to visit and often took Vercruysse’s sister, who was blind, to do errands.

“Every time I washed my car, he would come over to see if I needed help,” he said.

Lynda O’Grady, who lives about half a block from Spengler’s house, said she met him two summers ago when she was trying to catch some loose dogs in the road. They belonged to Spengler’s neighbor, she said, and the dogs came when he called them. She said it was a friendly encounter and she noticed nothing unusual about him.

O’Grady, her husband and her two sons, 14 and 16, were awakened Monday morning about 8 a.m. by a call from one of their son’s coaches. About an hour later, a SWAT team in a big black armored vehicle arrived to evacuate them.

“It was crazy. It was like a movie. It really was,” she said. “It seemed surreal.”

O’Grady said she counted seven heavily armed men who took up positions around their yard. The family was transferred from the armored vehicle to a city bus and sent to an elementary school, where police interviewed them.

At 6 p.m. Monday, O’Grady was waiting on the west side of the swing bridge over the inlet to Irondequoit Bay to go back to her house. “I hope I can grab some Christmas presents,” she said.

O’Grady said she met some of the volunteer firefighters from the West Webster department when they responded this summer to a truck fire nearby.

“You know, it’s such a shame,” she said. “They’re all such nice young men."

Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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