WEBSTER, N.Y. (AP) — An ex-con gunned down two firefighters after luring them to his neighborhood by setting a car and a house ablaze early Monday, then took shots at police and committed suicide while several homes burned.
Authorities used an armored vehicle to help residents flee dozens of homes on the shore of Lake Ontario a day before Christmas. Police restricted access to the neighborhood, and officials said it was not clear whether there were other bodies in the seven houses left to burn.
The sister of the gunman, who lived with him, was unaccounted for. The gunman’s motive was unknown.
The gunman fired at the four firefighters when they arrived shortly after 5:30 a.m. at the blaze in Webster, a suburb of Rochester, town Police Chief Gerald Pickering said. The first police officer who arrived chased the suspect and exchanged gunfire.
He lay in wait outdoors for the firefighters’ arrival, then opened fire probably with a rifle and from atop an earthen berm, Pickering said.
“It does appear it was a trap,” he said.
The gunman, William Spengler, had served more than 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980 at the house next to where Monday’s attack happened, Pickering said at afternoon news conference. Spengler, 62, was paroled in 1998 and had led a quiet life since, authorities said. Convicted felons are not allowed to possess weapons.
Two firefighters, one of whom was also a town police lieutenant, died at the scene, and two others were hospitalized. An off-duty officer who was passing by was also injured.
Another police officer, the one who exchanged gunfire with Spengler, “in all likelihood saved many lives,” Pickering said.
Emergency radio communications capture someone saying he “could see the muzzle flash coming at me” as Spengler carried out his ambush. The audio posted on the website RadioReference.com has someone reporting “firefighters are down” and saying “got to be rifle or shotgun — high powered … semi or fully auto.”
Spengler lived in the house with his sister and mother, Arline, who died in October. He had originally been charged with second-degree murder in connection with grandmother Rose Spengler’s death but pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter.
The West Webster Fire District learned of the fire early Monday after a report of a car and house on fire on Lake Road, on a narrow peninsula where Irondequoit Bay meets Lake Ontario, Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn said.
The fire appeared from a distance as a pulsating ball of flame glowing against the early morning sky, flames licking into treetops and reflecting on the water, with huge bursts of smoke billowing away in a brisk wind.
Two of the firefighters arrived on a fire engine and two in their own vehicles, Pickering said. After Spengler fired, one of the wounded men managed to flee, but the other three couldn’t because of flying gunfire.
A police armored vehicle was used to recover two men, and eventually it evacuated 33 people from nearby homes, the police chief said. The gunfire initially kept firefighters from battling the blazes.
The dead men were identified as Police Lt. Michael Chiapperini, 43, the Webster Police Department’s public information officer; and Tomasz Kaczowka, also a 911 dispatcher, whose age was not released.