WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — A retired police officer armed with an assault weapon and a handgun fired up to two dozen shots at a U.S. courthouse in West Virginia on Wednesday before police returned fire and killed him, police said.
Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger identified the gunman Thomas J. Piccard, 55, of Bridgeport, Ohio. He was a retired Wheeling police officer.
Schwertfeger did not say whether Piccard used both weapons during the assault on the Wheeling Federal Building or speculate on a motive.
Three on-duty security officers were injured by flying debris during the onslaught, he told a news conference.
Mayor Andy McKenzie said police who briefed him earlier Wednesday told him Piccard was a 20-year-plus veteran of the force who retired 13 years ago.
Investigators were seeking a search warrant for Piccard’s home in hopes of determining a motive and if he acted alone, said Chief Deputy Mike Claxton of the Marshals Service in northern West Virginia.
Asked if the gunman had any beef with the U.S. government, Claxton said, “We’re really digging hard at this point to find out.”
Claxton said a man later identified as Piccard began firing from a parking lot across from the federal building. “He was observed in the parking lot very quickly after the first shots were fired,” he said.
The building houses a variety of courtrooms and related offices, including judges, prosecutors and law enforcement.
Officials said it was too early to tell whether Piccard was targeting anyone in the building or what his motive may have been.
“That’s still trying to be determined,” said Bob Johnson, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Pittsburgh office.
People inside the building ducked under desks as the shots struck the building and shattered windows.
Carla Webb Daniels told media outlets she was in her attorney’s office nearby when she heard loud gunshots. She saw the gunman fire from a bank parking lot across the street.
“I was so nervous, I couldn’t believe it,” Daniels said. “People were scared and were banging on the doors asking to be let in.”
The three-story gray federal building remained cordoned off Wednesday night, surrounded by a heavy police presence in the city along the Ohio River in West Virginia’s northern panhandle about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.
Most people were going about their evenings, eating at local restaurants in the small city of about 28,000 with an older downtown with stone buildings, banks and coffee shops
David Wohlfeil, the owner of the Metropolitan City Grill near the courthouse, said he ran outside after he heard the first round of shots. He heard two more volleys of gunfire then ran back inside.
“I told everyone to get in the basement and then called 911,” he said, adding that police arrived while he was on the phone.
Wheeling has been hit by layoffs in the steel industry and its population dropped by 9.3 percent from 2000 to 2010 to about 28,500 people.
McKenzie said the shooting underscores the fact that even small cities like Wheeling are “not immune to national problems.”
“Things like this aren’t just happening in large cities, in this country we need to do a better job on mental health,” he said.