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Can anything be learned?

Only thing that's clear is the untold hurt was done

Tuesday, May 02, 2000

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Charles Whitman, the madman in the Texas tower, was first.

He invented the one-guy-against-the-world mass murderer, a prototype of the killers who exploded in Mt. Lebanon last week and in Wilkinsburg in March.

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Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 31 others before police snipers killed him.

His atrocities, committed on Aug. 1, 1966, have been duplicated many times since, the two most recent cases having occurred in Pittsburgh suburbs.

The Wilkinsburg suspect, Ronald Taylor, is accused of shooting three men dead and wounding two others on March 1.

Now, two months later, Richard Baumhammers of Mt. Lebanon is suspected of shooting and killing five people and leaving a sixth victim paralyzed.

Alfred Blumstein, a professor of criminology at Carnegie Mellon University, said Baumhammers' rampage may have had much or nothing to do with Taylor's.

"I can't conceive that it's anything distinctive to Pittsburgh. It could be that he's copycatting Taylor, but he doesn't need a Taylor to copycat because we now operate in a national news environment where every case is known," Blumstein said.

Like Blumstein, a cross-section of Western Pennsylvanians said in interviews that they do not believe the area has become less safe, or that the suburbs are radically changing. They said the only thing they were sure of was that two twisted men with guns had caused untold hurt.

"My first thought was it can't be happening again," said Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey. "Now I have mixed thoughts -- enormous sympathy for the victims and their families, and outrage."

Race appears to be central to both of the mass killings in the Pittsburgh area in the last two months.

Taylor, who is black, is charged with hate crimes because all the people he shot were white.

Baumhammers, who is white, may face an identical allegation of murdering because of racial hatred. He is suspected of killing a Jewish woman who lived next door to him, two Asians, a black man and an Indian man. The critically wounded man also is Indian.

Baumhammers, raised in Mt. Lebanon by parents who are dentists, has a bachelor's degree in political science and a law degree, credentials that, oddly enough, make him much like the many mass killers who have exploded in the years since Whitman's rampage.

"I'm 78 years old and I've seen a lot, but this still shocked me. I wish I could get some ideas to stop these violent things, but I don't know how,"said Robert F. Wolf, a retired businessman from Nevillewood, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to reward the best teachers in Western Pennsylvania through his Teacher Excellence Award program.

Mayor Murphy said he would write to Gov. Ridge and the Legislature to urge their support for more and better financed state mental hospitals.

Murphy, in a talk with reporters yesterday, also pondered the role of talk radio and other news media that "feed" hate crimes.

"The fact of the matter is we've seen a remarkable change in how we treat mentally ill people. I think much of that has been positive, but we also see where people are falling through the cracks in the system.

"We see it in the increasing number of homeless people in our streets, we see it with these kinds of tragic incidents, and I think as a community we need to understand that when somebody has been identified with having a mental illness we need to have a better system in place of community-based facilities than what we have now. I think the facilities we have do a good job, but I think they're underfunded and cannot serve the population we're forcing on them by closing mental institutions."

Sister Rita Yeasted, an English professor at La Roche College, said churches also must take the lead in making society kinder.

"Our culture is unwelcoming to immigrants in many ways," she said. "Churches can change that."

Yeasted said one clear lesson from Baumhammers' carnage is that violence is everybody's problem because it happens everywhere, including upscale suburbs.

"I was in my office on Friday night listening to the reports. I heard it was two dead, then three. When I got home, five were gone. I think I said what most everybody said -- not Mt. Lebanon. But the fact is violence and craziness extend to every community." she said.

Thao Q. Pham, one of those shot dead in Baumhammers' rampage, came to America thinking his odds of survival were better here.

A restaurant deliveryman in Robinson, Pham had fled Vietnam when he was about 8 years old. At 27, he was slain, probably by a man who had never seen him before.

"How can this happen?" asked his widow, Bang "Bonnie" Ngo. "I don't understand."

Along with his widow, Pham left a 5-year-old son, Chris, who has become one of the enduring images of the case, his tear-stained face wrinkled in pain.

Roddey, searching for ways to prevent another child from suffering that way, said he would form a committee to look for ways to prevent another such case. He's not sure what he or any government group can do, but he feels compelled to try.

"There's a sense of frustration. How do you find these people ahead time?" Roddey asked. "Could somebody who knew this man have said something?"

Yeasted was a friend of Joe Healy, the former Catholic priest and storyteller who was killed in the Wilkinsburg shootings. Healy's wife and seven stepchildren quickly said they forgave Ronald Taylor and wanted to see him get help.

"My first reaction this time was that it was another nut with a gun," Yeasted said. "But then I thought that the kind of love Joe Healy's family showed is the only kind of thing that will solve this problem."

Staff writer Timothy McNulty contributed to this report.

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