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Cold killer's 20-mile trail leaves 5 dead

Saturday, April 29, 2000

By The Pittsburgh Post Gazette

What was so chilling was the unhurried, methodical demeanor of a goateed gunman, firing a handgun and wreaking ethnic and racial terror from an old-money section of Mt. Lebanon to an Indian grocery, a Chinese restaurant and a karate school.


This story was written by staff writer Robert Dvorchak.
Staff writers who contributed were Jan Ackerman, Ann Belser, Mike Bucsko, Jane Elizabeth, Ken Fisher, Michael A. Fuoco, Cindi Lash, Carmen J. Lee, Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Laura Pace, Dennis B. Roddy, Gary Rotstein, Mike Rosenwald, Lori Shontz and Barbara White Stack.

Related stories:
The suspect
The victims

Photo Journal:
More pictures from the shootings

Online Map:
Trail of violence


Along the 20-mile trail of blood across two counties, five people were slain yesterday, another was gravely wounded and two synagogues were damaged by gunshots. One, the temple of the woman who is believed to be the first victim, was defaced with a spray-painted swastika and the word "Jew."

In the final act of mayhem played out over 72 minutes, the gunman killed a black karate student after he reportedly pointed his weapon at but spared the life of a white companion.

"What's wrong with these people? What's wrong with this world?" said a dumbfounded Shirley Kelly of Raccoon at the scene of the final killing in Beaver County.

Taken into custody was Richard Baumhammers, 34, believed to be an import-export and immigration lawyer who grew up in Mt. Lebanon, where his parents own a home. The son of dentists, he was arrested at about 3:24 p.m. yesterday in Ambridge, his black Jeep Grand Cherokee littered with spent shells and a bag containing a .357-caliber handgun. A bomb squad was called to investigate a suspected incendiary device.

During his arraignment in Beaver Falls on one count of murder and recklessly endangering another person, the 6-foot-2 Baumhammers appeared to smirk. He wore a bulletproof vest over a faded black T-shirt. As police rushed him to a police car for a trip to the county jail, people in a crowd that gathered yelled out, "He needs the death penalty" and "You're going to die."

He was being held last night without bail in the Beaver County Jail. Four other homicide charges and related charges are pending in Allegheny County.

"We are taking the tack of ethnic intimidation -- a hate crime," said Paul Wolf, acting Allegheny County police superintendent.

The victims included a Jewish woman who was Baumhammers' neighbor; a native of India who worked at the exotic India Grocers in Scott; two Asian-Americans who worked at the popular Ya Fei Chinese Cuisine in Robinson and were shot in full view of six customers; and a 22-year-old black man from Aliquippa who was taking a beginner's karate class. The wounded man also was of Indian descent.

Because the synagogues were hit, the FBI is investigating whether there are any violations of federal civil rights laws.

Chris Pham, 5, is held back as the Allegheny County Coroner's van drives away with the bodies of his father, Thao "Tony" Pham, and another man who allegedly were killed by Richard Baumhammers in a shooting at the Ya Fei Chinese restaurant at Robinson Town Centre. Behind Chris, his mother, Bonnie Pham, weeps and is comforted by family members, social workers, and police. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

About 25 agents and other support personnel are on the case and have offered assistance to the various police agencies involved, according to special agent Jeff Killeen of the FBI.

"We're prepared to help in any way we can. We're treating this with the utmost urgency," Killeen said.

It was the second murderous shooting rampage in two months in the region.

On March 1, three people were killed and two others were wounded at an apartment building and two fast-food restaurants in Wilkinsburg. The victims were white; the suspect, Ronald Taylor, who was been found incompetent to stand trial because of schizophrenia, is black and is being held at Mayview State Hospital. He was also charged with ethnic intimidation.

Gov. Ridge, in California to speak to a Republican group, was stunned at the news.

"Not again. Those are the first words that came to my mind. Not again," Ridge said. "We are struggling to make sense of what appears to be yet another brutal racist rampage."

Shotguns everywhere

Yesterday's chain of events began at 1:43 p.m. when Mt. Lebanon firefighters responded to an alarm at a stately home at 788 Elmspring Road. On arrival, firefighters found a burning rug and the body of Nicki Gordon, 63, married and the mother of three children. Police said she had been shot.

The neighborhood, called Virginia Manor, is one of the most affluent areas of the South Hills, where judges, doctors and business leaders live in brick colonials or stone mansions with velvety lawns and mature trees.

At about the same time, police in neighboring Scott got a call about a shooting at the India Grocers in Scott Towne Center and summoned Mt. Lebanon police to back them up.

"That's when it got crazy," said Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Tom Ogden.

The serene neighborhood was shattered by the sight of police officers toting shotguns or having handguns drawn, shutting off traffic. Moments later, tactical team officers in olive helmets and camouflage clothing joined the sweep.

"There were cops with shotguns everywhere," said Steve Vogt, who lives nearby on Cochran Road. "It was pretty scary."

Gwen Zeichner, who also lives a few blocks away on Bower Hill Road, said she'd been walking to visit her parents in their Virginia Manor home when she, too, was stopped by police.

"The cops were setting up and they were yelling at me, 'Go, go, go. Get out of here,' " she said. "So I ran, scared to death. I just can't believe this. This is very unusual for this neighborhood."

Meanwhile, the gunman struck at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, a brown brick complex off Cochran Road in Scott where Nicki Gordon worshipped. It houses a temple, social hall and nursery school attended by 116 pre-school children. About half of those children were attending the school's afternoon session when the gunman opened fire, blowing out the smoked-glass doors at the temple's entrance with a half-dozen shots.

The children, however, were in another section of the building and did not know what was happening in the front, temple President Sheila Schmeltz said. They were not harmed and were not told what had happened.

Using red paint, the gunman also daubed two swastika symbols on the bricks to the left side of the door and scrawled the word "Jew" on shards of glass that remained hanging in two of the front doors. He also scrawled another word, but investigators said they could only discern the letter "R" because the remaining glass fell and broke.

The gunman apparently left Scott by traveling over Swallow Hill Road into Carnegie. At the intersection of Chestnut and Lydia Streets, he paused long enough outside the buff-brick, two-story building that houses Ahavath Achim Congregation to fire at least four shots at 2:11 p.m.

Two of the bullets pierced each of the glass front doors. A third tore into a front window, barely missing the center candle of the electrified menorah that adorns the temple's entrance.

"It's so unfortunate. We never had any problems here in Carnegie. We've always felt very welcome here," said Stanley Roth, a past president who serves as spiritual leader of the congregation because it's too small to have a full-time rabbi. The Conservative congregation has about 45 families.

Roth also was fearful that the gunfire had harmed the temple's four Torahs, or holy scrolls, but the shots did not pierce the wall leading to the temple's sanctuary.

Roth said he knew of no reason why someone would target the temple, other than "I guess it's someone who hates Jews. This certainly brings back memories of things that have happened [to Jews] all over the world, things that we never expected to follow us to Carnegie."

No panic, no anguish

Shortly before 2 p.m. at India Grocers in Scott Towne Center, Kent Kretzler, owner of Travel Connections, was sitting at his desk when he saw the gunman walking by his front window. The gun was drawn and held straight out. He was wearing a blazer and dark pants.

Kretzler said he heard five or six "cracking sounds."

And then he saw a man walk past, carrying a gun. He showed "no panic, no anguish, nothing ... He was very calm," Kretzler said.

Kretzler said the gunman walked calmly to his car, which was parked in a handicapped spot.

"I'm looking at that gun, thinking, my God, that's real," Kretzler said.

India Grocers sells a variety of items, including spices, oils, ginger, rice, garlic and coconuts.

Killed was Anil Thakur, 31, a native of Bihar, India, who has no known relatives in America.

He was here on a work permit for The WideCom Group of Canada.

Shot in the neck was the store's manager, Sandip Patel, 25. Doctors at Mercy Hospital operated on him for two hours to remove the bullet.

He is in stable condition but faces the possibility of permanent paralysis.

Two storefronts away from the grocery is Noble Craftsman, a store that sells needlepoint, picture frames and other arts and crafts items. "We heard a crack, crack, crack," said store owner Pat Finlay. She said she thought it was someone with an electric staple gun.

After the gunman left, police received reports of shots being fired at the Ahavath Achim Congregation at 500 Chestnut St., Carnegie. Bullet holes were found in a ceiling and a wall, but no one was hurt.

Then about 2:30 p.m., the manager and a deliveryman were gunned down at the popular Ya Fei Chinese Cuisine at Robinson Town Centre. Killed were Ji-ye "Jerry" Sun, 34, of Churchill and Theo "Tony" Pham, 27, of Mt. Lebanon.

Witnesses said the gunman had asked for them by name before opening fire.

Vinh Truong, a Vietnamese worker who was cooking in the kitchen, said customers started yelling because someone had come into the restaurant and started shooting.

"I came out of the kitchen and saw Tony on the floor," he said. "They said the [gunman] asked, 'Where's Tony? Where's Jerry."

Truong said he is the brother-in-law of the deliveryman, who started working in the restaurant about seven months ago. Pham and Truong lived together in Castle Shannon.

Pham's wife, Bonnie, and son, Chris, 5, arrived at Robinson Town Centre shortly after 4 o'clock. Grief counselors met with them and other family members outside the restaurant. The family was not permitted inside.

Police blocked a section of the shopping center plaza for about five hours while they conducted their investigation inside the restaurant.

Feeling for a pulse

The gunman's trek next took him to C.S. Kim's School of Karate off Route 60 in Center Township, Beaver County, where Garry Lee, 22, of Aliquippa was shot.

Lee began taking classes three weeks ago and arrived at about 2:45 p.m. with his best friend, according to school master Marcus Murtaugh. They were the only students in the place.

According to a police affidavit, George Thomas II said a gunman entered and pointed a weapon at him. Thomas said the gunman then directed the gun at Lee, shooting him several times.

Thomas later picked Baumhammers from a photographic lineup as the shooter, police said.

Diane Wenzig of Center was in her pizza shop, Center Pizza, shortly before 3 p.m. when she heard what sounded like gunshots.

"I was sitting there with my kids and sister and we heard, 'Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam' -- multiple shots," Wenzig said. "I went to the window because I was curious and he came walking by. He was just calmly walking down the sidewalk -- and then I saw the gun."

Wenzig locked her shop door as the suspect, wearing sunglasses, a sport coat and carrying a briefcase under his arm, walked at a normal pace toward his Jeep.

"And then he popped off another couple of shots. I didn't see what he shot at. And then he calmly drove off," she said.

Wenzig wrote down the vehicle's license number and then went two doors down to the karate school.

On the floor, she saw Lee on the floor in his karate attire, bleeding and having trouble breathing.

Murtaugh was on the phone with 911 and handed the phone to Wenzig to give the description and license of the car.

Lee stopped breathing.

The dispatcher told her to turn him over, and she did so.

She saw wounds in his chest and on an arm. "I was holding his wrist, feeling for a pulse. He quit breathing on us," she said.

Police quickly closed in on the getaway car.

Aliquippa Patrolman John Fratangeli was parked on Route 51 near the Aliquippa-Ambridge Bridge when he spotted Baumhammers' black Jeep driving by.

He said he followed him over the roadway and into Ambridge.

He didn't turn on his flashing lights until he saw Ambridge police who could back him up.

Fratangeli, 28, said at first he thought he was going to be in the midst of a shoot-out but after an Ambridge car blocked his path, Baumhammer stopped his car and complied with the officers requests.

"He showed no emotion," Fratangeli said. Baumhammer also did not say anything to the officers.

Fratangeli said police found bullets on the car seat and the floor and that Baumhammers had more rounds in his pocket.

"There's no doubt in my mind he wasn't finished yet," Fratangeli said.

The rampage caused all kinds of havoc in the leafy neighborhoods of Mt. Lebanon. School officials locked down all 10 school buildings and delayed dismissals after police alerted them of the shootings at 2:50 p.m.

Students were not allowed to leave until 3:25 p.m. when school officials received word from police that it was safe to let them out, said Superintendent Glenn Smartschan.

Usual dismissal times for the district are 3 p.m. for the high school, 3:03 p.m. for middle schools and 3:30 p.m. for elementary schools.

Because the district only provides transportation in special cases, most of the 5,726 students walk to school.

In the Keystone Oaks School District, officials delayed dismissal at the request of Green Tree police for students who were Green Tree residents or attended Aiken Elementary School in Green Tree.

At the Keystone Oaks High School and Middle School, which are in Mt. Lebanon, about 250 students were not released until about 3:50 p.m. Regular dismissal is around 2:40 p.m. for both schools.

The 220 Aiken Elementary School pupils were not dismissed until about 4:15 p.m. but that was partly because the same buses that picked up the middle and high school students were used to transport the Aiken youngsters.

Normal dismissal time for those pupils is 3:10 p.m.

Keystone Oaks also enrolls youngsters from Castle Shannon and Dormont.

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