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Job loss tied to fatal shooting in Shaler

Suspect bought handgun on morning of slayings

Friday, October 31, 2003

By Paula Reed Ward and Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Michael A. Michalski walked into Markl Supply Co. on Perrysville Avenue on Wednesday, apparently calm and coherent.

He laid out several hundred dollars for a .357-caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun, passed an instant background check through the Pennsylvania State Police, and walked out with his gun.

Within hours, two people would be dead of gunshot wounds, and another on life support. And Michalski, who had dreamed of being a cop, would be in custody.

He's charged with two counts of criminal homicide in the shooting deaths of his former girlfriend, Gretchen Ferderbar, 18, and her friend Mark Phillips, 24.

Ferderbar's sister, Linda Ferderbar, 27, was in critical condition at Allegheny General Hospital with a gunshot wound to the head.

According to Allegheny County police, Michalski, 21, went into the Ferderbars' home at 202 Chipper Drive in Shaler just before 3 p.m. He argued with Gretchen Ferderbar and moments later, pulled out the Glock handgun, firing several times. His ex-girlfriend was hit once in the head and once in the leg. Phillips died from shots to the head, neck and chest.

Assistant Allegheny County Police Superintendent James Morton said detectives recovered 12 shell casings from the scene.

There had been ongoing squabbles between Gretchen Ferderbar and Michalski, Morton said, "but nobody expected anything of this severity. Even their friends said that."

According to Shaler police Detective Rick Byers, police had been called to the Chipper Drive residence numerous times over the years.

"It was abnormally high," he said. "There's a stack of records for calls to that address."

The Ferderbars' stepbrother was upstairs in his bedroom when he heard several loud bangs. He left his room when he heard screams and saw Michalski beating Gretchen Ferderbar, police said. He yelled at Michalski to stop but jumped out an upstairs window when she shouted to him that he had a gun.

When police responded to the scene, they found both Gretchen Ferderbar and Phillips already dead, and Michalski had fled.

They got his cell phone number, and Byers called him. When they spoke, Michalski blamed his shooting Gretchen Ferderbar on losing his job, according to the affidavit of probable cause.

"She's a bitch. She caused me to lose my job," he told Byers.

Morton believes the killings happened because of a "combination of things."

Ferderbar and Michalski had gotten in a dispute Tuesday night, detectives learned, when Michalski saw the black Pontiac Grand Am GT he and she owned outside Phillips' home in Carnegie.

Michalski used his car key and drove off with the vehicle, Morton said.

Sometime the next day, police believe, Michalski was fired from his job as a 911 dispatcher at Northwest Regional Communications in McCandless. He'd been there about three years, said Communications Director Dan Nussbaum. Citing privacy laws, Nussbaum would not explain the circumstances of Michalski's dismissal, other than to say he was not employed there at the time of the shooting.

Michalski had been working there earlier in the week.

A relative at the Ferderbars' home yesterday, who declined to be identified, said Michalski was fired from his job because he used computers there to secure private information about Phillips, including his address and license plate number.

A graduate of Shaler Area High School, Michalski wanted to be a police officer. He graduated from the police training academy at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in February and applied for a position with the county police in March 2001. He took the written test, scoring an 87 out of a possible 100. A score of 75 is required to pass.

After the written exam, applicants routinely take a polygraph test; a psychological examination; physical tests; home interviews and meet with an interview board.

Michalski was rejected for the position, but the police superintendent refused to say why.

Yesterday afternoon, Lee Markl, the owner of the police supply store where Michalski bought the gun, said he tries to sell firearms only to law enforcement officers and those people referred by them. Markl would not verify Michalski bought the gun at his shop, even though police have. Markl did say, though, if Michalski bought the gun there, he must have been in a sound emotional state at the time.

"If someone is acting abnormal, it's our policy to refuse the sale," Markl said.

To purchase a gun, the prospective buyer must present a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license, which is then used to run an instant background check through the state police. The law allowing the quick check went into effect in 1998; purchase approval can come within minutes.

The instant system checks whether the buyer has a criminal record, has ever been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment or is the subject of any protection-from-abuse or other court orders.

If so, the purchase is denied. If not, the buyer can walk out with the weapon.

Michalski had no felony criminal record.

At Shaler Area High School, where Gretchen Ferderbar graduated in 2002, several students said they were sorry about the shooting but could not provide much information about her.

High School Principal William Suit said she was well liked by staff and students. Her grades were average, he said, characterizing her as a student "who could have done better or could have done worse."

He added she wasn't very involved in any extra-curricular activities.

"She was a nice kid," he said. "Nothing good ever happens from this."

The school is starting a fund drive to support the family, and, he said, more attention will be given to domestic violence.

"We are going to start talking to students about the importance of healthy relationships."

Phillips, who graduated from Canevin High School and Duquesne University, was known as a good guy.

Pittsburgh Assistant Police Chief William Mullen knew Phillips ever since he coached him as a member of the Ss. Simon and Jude School basketball team in Scott. Mullen's two sons both knew the victim.

"We've been friends of the family since he was in grade school," Mullen said. "He was a super kid and a fine gentleman. He was a good, honest kid who never caused any problems. Every time you'd see him he was very polite. This is such a tragedy.

"He comes from a great family. I feel so sorry for them."

For the past several years, Phillips had worked as a bartender at Tequila Willie's bar in the Strip District.

"He was a fantastic guy, a super great guy," an employee there said yesterday. "He was courteous, kind, outgoing. This is very unfortunate, very tragic."

Visitation for Phillips will be at Slater Funeral Home, 1650 Greentree Road in Scott, from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow and from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday. A Mass will be celebrated Monday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Carnegie. A time has not been set.

Funeral arrangements for Gretchen Ferderbar were incomplete last night.

The slayings were Allegheny County's 103rd and 104th of the year. The record for homicides in one year is 118, which occurred in 1993.

Staff writer Nate Guidry contributed to this report.

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-1968. Paula Reed Ward can be reached at or 412-263-1455.

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