After giving money to a dozen people Tuesday morning, an elderly customer wielding a revolver killed a waitress, wounded a manager and committed suicide at the Ridpath Hotel in downtown Spokane.
The lunchtime shootings turned the lobby and sidewalk surrounding the landmark hotel into a scene of chaos and confusion.
“You could hear screaming and stuff,” said Florence Niemi, a forester attending a conference at the hotel. “Somebody hollered, ‘Put down that gun.’ It kind of makes your knees feel like Jell-O.”
Sam White was walking into the Sprague Avenue entrance when he saw a security guard with a gun drawn.
“He’s yelling, ‘He’s got a gun!’ I backed out and went around and looked in the window. I heard what must have been the last shot,” White said. “I looked in and saw the guy had shot himself.”
Waitress Marie Van Slate, 49, of Coeur d’Alene, died from gunshot wounds in Sacred Heart Medical Center’s emergency room.
Ronald MacDonald, 58, of Spokane, was in stable condition at the hospital with a bullet wound to his shoulder.
The gunman, Orville Sassen, 78, of 317 W. Fourth, died in the hotel after shooting himself in the head.
Sassen had been a regular “coffee customer” for years at the Silver Grill restaurant in the lobby, said Dave Thompson, vice president of operations at WestCoast Hotels, which owns the Ridpath.
Wearing loud plaid pants and a white trench coat, Sassen entered the hotel about 10 a.m. Tuesday and asked a cashier at the front desk to exchange two $100 bills for the equivalent in $5s, said Marty Heimbigner, a barber in the hotel.
“He was putting the money into envelopes and passing it out, saying this was for his friends,” he said.
Heimbigner, who was having breakfast at the restaurant, said Sassen gave money to several waitresses, busboys and even a customer, who tried to return the cash.
Sassen left the restaurant and returned about 11:30 a.m. with a revolver.
Without saying anything, he shot Van Slate and MacDonald in the entrance to the restaurant, just off Sprague Avenue.
Panic quickly spread, employees said.
Security guard Chad Eastep, also a reserve police officer, tried to get Sassen to drop his gun, but the shooter ignored him, walked away and shot himself, police said.
“Here, of all places,” said a shaky JoAnn Byrd, a waitress and hostess at the hotel. “I thought I was safe here.”
Anthony Brando, a Silver Grill cook, said he heard two shots and ran out of the kitchen into the restaurant. He saw a waitress duck beneath the hostess station and ran back into the kitchen, warning everybody to get down.
Brando ran up a back staircase to call police.
Other people streamed out of the hotel and sprinted down sidewalks, warning nearby businesses about the shooting.
Suzie Nash was working in the hotel office when she heard the shots.
By the time she ran out, Sassen was dead. She hurried to MacDonald and applied pressure to his right shoulder to stop the bleeding.
Eastep was giving Van Slate cardiopulmonary resuscitation, she said.
“Seconds seemed like a long time at that point,” Nash said.
Hotel Manager Carl Naccarato said there were 10 people in the restaurant during the shootings.
Fifteen minutes later, there would have been three times that many. “It really starts to pick up at 11:45,” he said.
Employees shuffled in and out of the hotel all day, concerned about co-workers after hearing the news on the radio.
They comforted one another, cried and hugged.
“I think we’ve been robbed once in 20 years,” said Karen Reithmayr, a front desk employee. “This is scary stuff.”
While police refused to speculate about a motive, Byrd said Van Slate had asked Sassen to leave the grill over the weekend because he was incontinent.
Byrd said the odor of urine had particularly irritated Van Slate last weekend. Byrd said she went ahead and served him coffee anyway.
“He sat there ranting and raving and shaking really bad,” she said.
Except for the Silver Grill, all other businesses and functions at the Ridpath had returned to normal by dinner time Tuesday.
The Silver Grill will remain closed for an indefinite time. Customers will be directed to Ankeny’s restaurant on the top floor of the hotel for breakfast and lunch.
Naccarato, hotel manager for 25 years, said many employees consider one another as extended family.
“A lot have been here 10, 20 years,” he said. “We’re trying to get everybody together; we’re drawing strength from one another.”
The hotel is bringing in counselors for employees.
“You read about it every day and you drop it there,” Naccarato said. “You don’t really think it can happen to you. It can happen in a minute.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos; Graphic: Ridpath Hotel shooting spree
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Kelly McBride Staff writer Contributing to this report were Spokesman-Review staff members Bruce Krasnow, Kristina Johnson, Dan Hansen, Gita Sitaramiah, Kelly McBride, Mike Prager, Craig Welch, Christopher Anderson, Dan Pelle and Warren Huskey.
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