WEBSTER, N.Y. – 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 unclear whether there were other bodies in the seven houses left to burn.
The gunman’s sister, who lived with him, was unaccounted for. The gunman’s motive was unknown.
William Spengler 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 gunman and exchanged shots.
Spengler 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.
Spengler had served more than 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old paternal grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980 at the house next to where Monday’s attack happened, Pickering said. 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 also was a town police lieutenant, died at the scene, and two others were hospitalized. An off-duty officer who was passing by also was injured.
Another police officer, the one who exchanged gunfire with Spengler, “in all likelihood saved many lives,” Pickering said.
Spengler lived in the house with his sister, Cheryl Spengler, and his mother, Arline Spengler, who died in October.
A friend said William Spengler didn’t seem violent but hated his sister. Roger Vercruysse lived next door to Spengler and recalled a man who doted on his mother, whose obituary suggested contributions to the West Webster Fire Department.
“He loved his mama to death,” said Vercruysse, who last saw his friend about six months ago. “I think after his mama passed, he went crazy.”
Vercruysse also said Spengler “couldn’t stand his sister” and “stayed on one side of the house and she stayed on the other.”
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.
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 fled, but the other three couldn’t because of flying gunfire.
A police armored vehicle was used to recover two men, and eventually it removed 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 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka, who was also a 911 dispatcher.
The two wounded firefighters, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino, were in guarded condition in the intensive care unit at Strong Memorial Hospital, authorities said. Both were awake and alert and are expected to recover.