SAYLORSBURG, Pa. (AP) — A disabled junk dealer feuding with local officials over his debris-strewn property packed a rental car with guns and ammunition before opening fire at a town meeting and killing three men, authorities said Tuesday.
Rockne Newell, 59, had lost his property this year in a court fight over complaints that he lived in a storage shed, built an illegal culvert and used a bucket outside as a toilet.
At his arraignment on homicide charges Tuesday morning, a judge asked Newell if he owned any real estate.
“They stole it from me. That’s what started all this,” he replied.
Newell allegedly used a Ruger Mini-14 rifle to blast a barrage of gunfire through a wall into the meeting room Monday night in Ross Township, about 85 miles north of Philadelphia, before entering the room and shooting a supervisor and four residents, two of whom survived.
Newell then retreated to the car and picked up a revolver, authorities said. When he returned to the meeting room, the 5-foot-10, 240-pound suspect was tackled by two men and shot in the leg during the scuffle, officials said.
“I wish I killed more of them!” Newell shouted when state Trooper Nicolas De La Iglesia arrived on the scene before 8 p.m., according to the trooper’s affidavit.
Two men died at the scene and the third, Ross Township zoning officer David Fleetwood, died after being flown to Lehigh Valley Medical Center. Fleetwood, 62, also served as a supervisor in nearby Chestnuthill Township, the coroner said.
Officials identified the slain residents as Gerard J. Kozic, 53, and James V. LaGuardia, 64, both of Saylorsburg.
At the hospital an hour later, Newell told police he had gone to the meeting in hopes of finding the township officials in one place.
“He intended to shoot the solicitor and supervisors and thought that he would then be killed,” police said in the affidavit.
Newell was about to fire his .44 Magnum revolver when the township’s parks and recreation director, Bernie Kozen, and resident Mark Kresh wrestled him to the ground, Monroe County Coroner Bob Allen said at a news conference.
“Two very courageous individuals positioned themselves in a way that they were able to jump on this subject as he came through the door,” State Police Lt. Col. George Bivins said. “This could have been much worse.”
The two survivors were released from the hospital, along with Newell.
Terry Doll, who lives near Newell, said he was well-known as a “kook,” an intelligent man whose unpredictability stoked fear in some neighbors.
“When I found out about the shooting, we all looked at each other and said his name,” said Doll, 58, who has lived in her house for more than 30 years. “We certainly always hoped that he would have never done something like this.”
About 15 to 18 people had been at the meeting, including a Pocono Record reporter covering his first Ross Township meeting.
“The thing that got my attention: plaster flying out, blowing out through the walls. Witnesses would later tell me they saw pictures exploding away from the walls,” reported Chris Reber said in an account to his editors.
In June, the newspaper published an article describing an 18-year fight between the township and Newell over his property, which includes an old camper filled with wooden pallets, a leaning garage close to collapse and a propane tank inside an old dog house.
Township supervisors voted in February 2012 to take legal action against Newell for alleged zoning and sewer regulations. In October, he set up a fundraising page online to try to raise $10,000 for legal fees.
“Ross township took me to court & the court ruled I have to vacate my home of 20 years,” Newell wrote on the page. He said he lived on $600 a month in Social Security benefits and had no money to clean his property.
Newell told the newspaper he was unemployed for years after an injury from a crash and had nowhere else to go.
The state Department of Environmental Protection had ordered Newell in March to stop dredging on the property and restore the creek.
“He wasn’t happy about the situation, but he was cooperative,” department spokeswoman Colleen Connolly recalled.
Newell didn’t enter a plea at his arraignment on three homicide counts and two counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault. He was given a form for a public defender, but he did not request a lawyer. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Aug. 19.
Russell Kresge, a township supervisor who lives down the road from Newell and attended Monday night’s meeting, found it difficult to discuss what happened.
“This is a little township that always ran super,” he said from his front porch, a friendly Rottweiler by his side. Kresge’s wife said the dog could sense something was wrong with her master and was shedding abnormally.