Gunman Blocks NY Center's Door, Kills 13, Self

 

 
 
 

William Kates | | Monday, April 6, 2009


BINGHAMTON, N.Y. (AP) -- A gunman barricaded the back door of a community center with his car and then opened fire on a room full of immigrants taking a citizenship class Friday, killing 13 people before apparently committing suicide, officials said.

Investigators said they had yet to establish a motive for the massacre, which was at least the fifth deadly mass shooting in the U.S. in the past month alone.

The attack came just after 10 a.m. at the American Civic Association, an organization that helps immigrants settle in this country. Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said the gunman parked his car against the back door, "making sure nobody could escape," then stormed through the front, shooting two receptionists, apparently without a word.

The killer, believed to be a Vietnamese immigrant, then entered a room just off the reception area and fired on a citizenship class.

"The people were trying to better themselves, trying to become citizens," the police chief said.

One receptionist was killed, while the other, shot in the abdomen, pretended to be dead and then crawled under a desk and called 911, he said.

Police said they arrived within two minutes.

The rest of those killed were shot in the classroom. Four people were critically wounded.

The man believed to have carried out the attack was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in an office, a satchel containing ammunition slung around his neck, authorities said. Police found two handguns - a 9 mm and a .45-caliber - and a hunting knife.

Thirty-seven people in all made it out of the building, including 26 who hid in the boiler room in the basement, cowering there for three hours while police methodically searched the building and tried to determine whether the gunman was still alive and whether he was holding any hostages, Zikuski said.

Those in the basement stayed in contact with police by cell phone, switching from one phone to another when their batteries ran out, Zikuski said. Others hid in closets and under desks.

Police heard no gunfire after they arrived but waited for about an hour before entering the building to make sure it was safe for officers. They then spent two hours searching the building.

They led a number of men out of the building in plastic handcuffs while they tried to sort out the victims from the killer or killers.

Most of the people brought out couldn't speak English, the chief said.

Alex Galkin, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, said he was taking English classes when he heard a shot and quickly went to the basement with about 20 other people.

"It was just panic," Galkin said.

Zhanar Tokhtabayeva, a 30-year-old from Kazakhstan, said she was in an English class when she heard a shot and her teacher screamed for everyone to go to the storage room.

"I heard the shots, every shot. I heard no screams, just silence, shooting," she said. "I heard shooting, very long time, and I was thinking, when will this stop? I was thinking that my life was finished."

Dr. Jeffrey King, speaking at a Catholic Charities office where counseling was being offered Friday night, said he was certain his mother, 72-year-old Roberta King, who taught English at the community center, was among the dead.

Authorities read a list of survivors and his mother's name wasn't on it, he said.

King, one of 10 children, described his mother as a woman brimming with interests ranging from the opera to the preservation society to collecting thousands of dolls. He recollected a recent conversation in which he told her to enjoy her retirement.

"I said, 'Mom you're in your 70s,'" King said. "She said, 'What? You don't think I enjoy working?'"

President Barack Obama, who was traveling in Europe, said he was shocked and saddened by the shooting, which he called an "act of senseless violence." He said he and his wife, Michelle Obama, were praying for the victims, their families and the people of Binghamton, about 140 miles northwest of New York City.

Gov. David Paterson said the massacre was probably "the worst tragedy and senseless crime in the history of this city." Noting mass killings in Alabama and Oakland, Calif., last month, he said: "When are we going to be able to curb the kind of violence that is so fraught and so rapid that we can't even keep track of the incidents?"

The community center was holding class "for those who want to become citizens of the United States of America, who wanted to be part of the American Dream, and so tragically may have had that hope thwarted today," the governor said. "But there still is an American dream, and all of us who are Americans will try to heal this very, very deep wound in the city of Binghamton."

Center officials issued a statement Friday night saying they were "stricken with grief about today's horrific assault and share this grief with the victims' families, our community and the entire nation."

The suspected gunman carried ID with the name of 42-year-old Jiverly Voong, of nearby Johnson City, N.Y., but that was believed to be an alias, said a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A second law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two handguns were registered to Jiverly Wong, another name the man used. Both officials were not authorized to speak publicly.

Initial reports suggested Voong had recently been let go from IBM. But a person at IBM said there was no record of a Jiverly Voong ever working there.

The police chief would not confirm the name of the dead man with the ammunition satchel, saying authorities were still trying to establish with certainty that he was the gunman.

"We have no idea what the motive is," Zikuski said.

He said the suspected gunman "was no stranger" to the community center and may have gone there to take a class.

A woman who answered the phone at a listing for Henry D. Voong said she was Jiverly Voong's sister but would not give her name. She said her brother had been in the country for 28 years and had citizenship.

"I think there's a misunderstanding over here because I want to know, too," she said.

Friday evening, police searched Voong's house and carried out three computer hard drives, a brown canvas rifle case, a briefcase, a small suitcase and several paper bags.

Police left the Voong home shortly before 8 p.m., soon after four people arrived by car and went into the house. It wasn't clear who they were, but they promptly turned out the lights.

Crime scene tape was stretched across the street about 20 yards from the house, and a steady rain fell as two state troopers stood guard to keep anyone but neighborhood residents from entering the dead-end street.

Waiting outside a Catholic Charities office where counselors were tending to relatives of victims, Omri Yigal said his wife, Delores, was taking English lessons when the gunman attacked. He had no word on what happened to her.

He finally left the center feeling sullen shortly before 8 p.m.

"They told me they don't have much hope for me," the Filipino immigrant said before going home to wait for a telephone call.

The American Civic Association helps immigrants in the Binghamton area with citizenship, resettlement and family reunification. The shootings took place in a neighborhood of homes and small businesses in downtown Binghamton, a city of about 47,000 residents.

The Binghamton area was the home to Endicott-Johnson shoe company and the birthplace of IBM, which between them employed tens of thousands of workers before the shoe company closed a decade ago and IBM downsized in recent years.

A string of attacks in the U.S. in the last month left 44 people dead in all.

A gunman killed 10 people and himself in Samson, Ala.; shootings that began with a traffic stop in Oakland, Calif., left four police officers and the gunman dead; an apparent murder-suicide in Santa Clara, Calif., left six dead; and a gunman went on a rampage at a nursing home Sunday, killing seven elderly residents and a nurse who cared for them.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers George M. Walsh and Chris Carola in Albany; Kimberly Hefling and Devlin Barrett in Washington; Michael Hill in Binghamton; and John Wawrow in Buffalo; John Kekis in Johnson City; and the AP News Research Center.




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