Special Report: Western Psych shootings followed volatile years for John Shick
March 18, 2012 4:00 AM
John Shick: Yearbook photo from Long Beach Polytechnic High School.
The Shick family lived in this home in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, Calif.
John Shick, left, warms up with a teammate on Long Beach Polytechnic High School's tennis squad. Photo from the school's 1999 yearbook.
Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, where John Shick opened fire.
This story was reported by staff writersMoriah Balingit, Eleanor Chute, Michael A. Fuoco, Sadie Gurman, Sean Hamill, Rich Lord, Liz Navratil, Jacob Quinn Sanders, Jonathan D. Silver; and freelancersGabrielle Banks, Andy Greder, Julie PerchaandLee van der Voo; it was written byLillian Thomas.
John Shick spent his short life trying to make connections. From his time as an intense, quiet teenager who hesitantly laughed at jokes to his increasingly bizarre efforts to engage fellow students in Oregon and Pittsburgh, from work on an academic research paper while still in high school to rambling writings on the walls of his apartments in his last years, he struggled to find a place in the world.
The biography of an exceptionally bright young man who shattered the lives of victims, family members and an entire community when he opened fire in the lobby of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC on March 8 is itself a catalog of a shattered life.
John F. Shick grew up in California, the only child of Susan Fowler Shick, a redevelopment attorney, and Larry Shick, who worked for IBM.
Born April 22, 1981, he spent much of his childhood in the neatly appointed Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach. The Shicks lived in a brick two-bedroom with pool and guest house at 3939 Pine Ave. -- which despite its alpine name is lined with 50-foot skinny palm trees.
Lynn Groden lived across the street. As a child, John "was polite, friendly, a nice kid," Ms. Groden said. "They were a beautiful family, a really close, nice family. [John] was at home a lot. It was a very together family. ... They were raising him very well."
John attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School and would have passed oilfields of active "nodding donkey" pumps on the 31/2-mile ride to the school.
Poly, the alma mater of actor John Wayne, tennis legend Billie Jean King, actress Cameron Diaz and the rapper Snoop Dogg, is one of the state's largest high schools and draws a diverse mix of students.
John did not get lost among the 4,500-plus students. He played on the school tennis team, served as vice president for American Field Service international exchange club, played in the Symphonic Winds ensemble and belonged to Program of Additional Curricular Experiences, a prestigious college prep program. His grades qualified him for the California Scholarship Federation and the National Honor Society.
He was not a big social mover, said classmates, who uniformly described him as quiet, intelligent, and intense.
"He was involved with a lot of things at school, but he wasn't really involved with the people at school," said a California woman who also played oboe in the Symphonic Winds ensemble. She did not want her name used. She sat by him for three years as his stand partner. She described him as quiet, shy, not unfriendly but "kind of uncomfortable a lot of the time."
"I was always talking at him and trying to ask him questions," she said. "I think he was receptive to me maybe because I made an effort. ... I would make a joke and he would kind of laugh in a way like he didn't really want to laugh because that wasn't part of his personality."
She noted he played a difficult instrument and worked hard at it, though she never knew if he really enjoyed it. "He didn't seem happy playing oboe. He just was like, I'm here, bring it on."
With the help of a relative, Mr. Shick landed a job as a research assistant in a laboratory at the University of Southern California, working on a project that explored how estrogen replacement therapy interacted with Alzheimer's disease in 1998. His work was significant enough that he earned a spot as a co-author on a paper published in the research journal Experimental Neurology, a rare feat.
"That's definitely unusual," said David Stone, the neuroscientist who oversaw him at USC. "Not a lot of people have publications in peer-reviewed journals in their high school years."
After high school, Mr. Shick enrolled in a rigorous "three-two" program in which he studied his first three years at Carleton College, a prestigious small school known for excellence in the hard sciences, in Northfield, Minn., and his final two at Columbia University in New York City. Mr. Shick came to the tree-lined Carleton campus in fall 1999. His academic advisor, Deborah Gross, described him as a capable, hard-working student, but not in the top of his class.
"He was very driven," said Ms. Gross, now the head of the chemistry department. "He was in my office asking questions -- very persistent."
Trish Ferrett taught Mr. Shick in introductory and physical chemistry classes and said group work was challenging for him.
"He sometimes had issues getting along with others," Ms. Ferrett said. "I coached him on how to negotiate it." She added that it wasn't unusual to work on social issues with students.
In 2000, Mr. Shick contacted Mr. Stone, the researcher he'd worked with in California, who was at a lab at Harvard Medical School's psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass.
Recalling his strong work ethic as a teenager, Mr. Stone rehired him for a research project that examined the genetics of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Mr. Shick was listed as a co-author of a paper that appeared in the Archives of General Psychiatry in June 2002.
Mr. Stone said Mr. Shick was not specifically interested in psychiatric disorders and called it a "weird coincidence" that a man who later was committed to a psychiatric hospital engaged in the research. He recalled Mr. Shick as "intense" but "never antagonistic."
"He was much more eager to please and putting in a lot of hard work and trying to do a good job at the lab," Mr. Stone said.
Carleton's campus security has no record of incidents involving Mr. Shick, said spokesman Eric Sieger. A search on the Northfield Police Department's database showed no record of arrests or contact with police, a department employee said.
"There were no issues of violence or violent tendencies that we saw at least," Mr. Sieger said.
Mr. Shick graduated with a chemistry degree from Carleton and a computer science degree from Columbia in 2004, he said.
Records show that Mr. Shick had a post office box when he arrived in Manhattan for the Columbia portion of his studies. He then showed up, according to a records search, at an address in Midtown on 8th Avenue not far from the start of Central Park before his mother helped him move to the tonier Upper East Side.
After he earned his degree, Mr. Shick held a variety of jobs. A resume -- only parts of which could be verified -- indicated that he helped teach science to children, worked as a barista at a Starbucks, managed client accounts for a company, helped in a brain imaging lab and wrote articles for a monthly corporate research newsletter.
"There's smart and there's very smart. I think he was very smart," said Joel Houston, proprietor of South-Carolina CAHA Research, who hired Mr. Shick to work for him in Brewster, about an hour north of Manhattan. "He behaved himself. He came to work. He did the work. What can I say?"
Mr. Houston said he never saw Mr. Shick display any violent or aggressive tendencies during the roughly six months he employed him from fall 2006 to spring 2007.
Stephen Edwards, a Columbia computer science professor, said Mr. Shick worked with him on a small independent project that "wasn't particularly spectacular." He remembered Mr. Shick's seeming inability to finish small tasks that he was given, appearing promptly at their weekly meetings but with the work undone week after week.
"It was clear ... that he was having a very hard time of it," Mr. Edwards said, and recalled that at least one administrator noted how much anger and frustration he showed.
Some of that seemed to leak into Mr. Shick's resume, where he listed himself as a "research assistant" at a lab: "Gathered data from PET and MRI scans of hippocampus. Supervisors Mark and Anissa (corrupted Arabic) were later retasked and currently suffer speech pathologies, insisting I was a data analyst, not a research assistant."
In the mid-2000s, Mr. Shick worked briefly for Promenet Inc., an IT company, as a sales account executive. A manager there, who did not want her name in print, said that while he was professional and a "typical sales rep," he was intensely personal and odd. She called him "the weirdest of the bunch."
"You know when you get a vibe from people," she said, "almost like stay away."
While Mr. Shick was in New York, his retired parents began a long sea adventure.
Susan and Larry Shick have spent much of the past eight years on their 42-foot yacht, the Moira. They maintain a blog that focuses on their travels.
In the summer of 2006, Ms. Shick spent time in New York with her son, according to the blog. "John and I had a wonderful time together," she wrote. "I was able to help him move to a quiet, pleasant neighborhood on the East Side after a year-plus of living around Times Square and 42nd Street, which he found rough and very commercial. We went to concerts, plays, parks, and restaurants together and spent time exploring Newport, Rhode Island and Doylestown, Pennsylvania (where I grew up). We were often able to have dinner together at his apartment or mine with cooking responsibilities shared when schedules allowed."
Larry Shick arrived in late June, she wrote. "He and I took off to Maine while John decided to stay in NYC to do the leg work that led to his accepting a computer sales job later in July."
In 2007 he traveled to Colombia, according to his parents' blog.
By April 2009, Mr. Shick was in Portland.
He lived in an apartment building on S.W. St. Clair Avenue.
Heather St. Clair was the assistant manager of the building. She didn't know him, but thought his parents helped pay the rent.
At times, he confronted fellow tenants in the elevator, asked odd questions, and had unprovoked anger outbursts. For stretches he wasn't visible at all, said Ms. St. Clair, keeping to himself and not socializing. She never knew him to be violent, she said.
"I do know that his behavior was erratic and unacceptable so we did call his mother and tell her that, so she moved him to another apartment," she said.
"When he moved out, there were a lot of things written on his wall," she said.
Mr. Shick applied to and was accepted to Portland State University's doctoral program in chemistry for fall 2009, receiving full tuition and a stipend that came with oversight of a laboratory.
Mr. Shick arrived at PSU in the summer, wearing a wool hat and sunglasses, which he seldom, if ever, removed. Students and faculty reported odd exchanges, including unusual remarks and occasional outbursts.
"He was a bit uncomfortable around other students. Students were uncomfortable around him. Staff were uncomfortable around him," said PSU spokesman Scott Gallagher. "He started harassing one particular student a bit much." Mr. Shick repeatedly called that student, who eventually told officials he feared for his safety, Mr. Gallagher said.
Over the next several weeks, campus security and student services -- which could have provided counseling and support for Mr. Shick's apparent mental health issues -- were notified of his behaviors. Mr. Shick refused to cooperate with either, however. Barring his willingness to talk to counselors and security officers, PSU rescinded its offer, Mr. Gallagher said.
"After that nobody knew what he did or where he went, but over a period of time afterwards he did send some odd emails and letters to the chair of the department. The way that was described to me was 'weird gobbledygook.'"
Also in 2009, Mr. Shick petitioned to change his name to either William Huhnpere Schols Kan or Willim Hahnpere Scolskan -- it appears two different ways in court documents.
On Dec. 29 of that year, someone reported Mr. Shick, then known as Mr. Scolskan, to authorities because he was "acting bizarrely" and harassing people at the Budget Car rental counter at the Portland International Airport, according to an arrest report. Officers found him there wearing several layers of clothing, sunglasses and bags strung around his neck.
When officers approached him outside the terminal, he pulled a black Mag Light flashlight out of his bag and swung it at Officer Jacob Cassity. Officers tackled him to the ground and into a flower bed, where he continued to fight them and flailed wildly, kicking Officer Cassity in the head and attempting to bite his arm. He was stunned four times with a Taser, struck four times with a baton, punched in the face, midsection and finally five times in the groin before he could be subdued.
During the struggle, he said that he was an Ivy League graduate and that the officers would be "prosecuted by the Hague for war crimes." He called them "slaves to Obama and the corporate government of this country."
Even as paramedics loaded him into an ambulance to take him for a mental evaluation, he squirmed and attempted to bite them. At Providence Hospital, it took six security officers to restrain him to a bed. He had to be sedated.
Officers found he was wearing two backpacks and had another bag underneath his vest. Inside, they found two Chinese to English dictionaries and writing in notebooks described by Officer Cassity as "mostly incoherent." Using a racial epithet, he wrote: "This country will never get a confession out of me. No matter how many [expletives] drag me to Washington."
Other entries, Officer Cassity wrote, threatened President Barack Obama, prompting him to forward his report to the U.S. Secret Service.
An agent in the Portland office reviewed the report, but "it was not deemed threatening at the time so there was no action taken by us," said Max Milien, spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service.
Officer Cassity later petitioned to have Mr. Shick committed and testified at his civil commitment hearing, according to Robert Leineweber, the Multnomah County deputy district attorney assigned to the case. A judge ordered him into psychiatric treatment for up to 180 days, but it's unclear how long he remained in treatment.
Mr. Leineweber said when he learned of the commitment, he called the arresting officer to see how they should proceed with charges. He said he never heard back and Mr. Shick was never prosecuted. John Hoover, deputy district attorney at Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, said the office didn't press charges because officials believed the situation was being taken care of by doctors.
In May 2010, Mr. Scolskan/Shick petitioned to have his name changed back to John Shick.
In July 2011, Mr. Shick, now 30, moved to the Royal York Apartments in Oakland and enrolled in August at Duquesne University as a graduate biology student and served as a teaching assistant. Soon after he started in the program at Duquesne, students studying biology began to avoid Mr. Shick, especially after they began hearing rumors that he was bothering some women by constantly sending them text messages, said Carole Wolfe, an undergraduate studying biology. Ms. Wolfe said Mr. Shick sometimes listened to the "Harry Potter" theme song without headphones in the computer lab and often mumbled to himself. It wasn't unusual to see him sporting a fanny pack and carrying a backpack as well as two shopping bags.
Within about a month of his arrival, the school began receiving complaints from approximately eight female graduate students in the department about what Duquesne said were incessant texts and emails from Mr. Shick, who apparently wanted to start a relationship.
"He was very persistent, especially with a couple of them," Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare said. "Some he wanted to date. Others he wanted to study with, to make friends. He wanted to form relationships. The notes were not threatening, she said, but the women said they "did not want to have any kind of relationship with him."
The students decided against filing a criminal complaint with campus police, but David Seybert, dean of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, filed a charge against Mr. Shick with the university's office of student conduct.
On Oct. 21, Duquesne relieved Mr. Shick of his teaching assistant duties.
The university held a Nov. 3 conference on the accusations against Mr. Shick before Susan Monahan, director of the office of student conduct, Ms. Fare said. Mr. Shick's mother accompanied him to the 15-minute conference. Mr. Shick admitted sending messages and was found "responsible" by Duquesne of harassment.
As a sanction, the university barred him from campus and from contact with female biology students in the Bayer School.
She said he chose not to appeal and instead withdrew from the university the same day as the hearing. He sent a thank you note to hearing personnel afterward.
At some point after that, Mr. Shick placed an online ad seeking a roommate: "Your roomate is a male 30 year old PhD student and ivy graduate," it said.
On Jan. 11, he called 911 to report health problems. At around 5:30 a.m. that day, he told a call taker he was vomiting blood and had a stomach ache. He met paramedics in the lobby and was transported to UPMC Presbyterian.
In the Royal York, an 11-story art deco building on Bigelow Boulevard, neighbors began to keep their distance.
Residents said that Mr. Shick's odd, sometimes disturbing behavior prompted a doorman to warn residents, especially women, to stay away from Mr. Shick.
Scott Kunst, 43, lives three doors down from Mr. Shick's room. He and his fiancee, Tracey Hilton, said they never knew Mr. Shick by name but when they saw his photo they had no doubt it was the "strange" man who lived down the hall.
Mr. Shick sometimes left yellow Post-Its on his door that said, "Now cleaning up vomit of pancreatitis. Please do not disturb." The room, which few people ever entered, often smelled like cleaning products, the pair said.
Residents and business owners said Mr. Shick would walk around North Oakland, usually during the afternoons. He often stopped in local businesses, peered around and left without saying or buying anything.
Among his regular stops was the D&L Convenience Store on the corner of Centre and Melwood avenues, where his unkempt hair and strange mannerisms left an impression.
"I think something was wrong with him," said Lisa Williams, who works in the store. "I always thought he was a man who kept to himself."
The final days
In the week of the shooting, Shick emailed several faculty members at Carleton about "what he perceived to be his illnesses," said Trish Ferrett, one of the chemistry professors who had taught him. "He was looking for help."
She declined to comment further, but said a recipient of the emails has been cooperating with law enforcement officials.
Mr. Shick's neighbor Mr. Kunst said that a man in the building warned his fiancee to stay away from Mr. Shick because he had been acting especially strange.
On March 7, the day before the shootings, Mr. Shick was taken to UPMC Presbyterian after calling 911. Records show that he called shortly after 5 p.m. and reported that he was sick. He told a call taker that he was throwing up blood and had worms in his stool. He told them he had a parasitic and subcutaneous infection. He vomited in the lobby, neighbors said, and paramedics took him to UPMC Presbyterian as an E0, the highest priority that can be assigned to a medical transport.
On March 8, he was out of the hospital and on the streets.
Police officers, trying to trace his steps, believe that Mr. Shick walked to Western Pysch.
He may have stopped at a Rite Aid Pharmacy on Atwood Street in Oakland, where a surveillance video shows a man who appears to be Mr. Shick about an hour before the shootings.
Surveillance footage from Western Psych shows Mr. Shick coming in the door wearing a tan trench coat, T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes about 1:42 p.m.
Mr. Shick wordlessly opened fire with two semiautomatic handguns.
A minute after Mr. Shick arrived, calls began streaming into 911.
Six people were shot on the first floor. Mr. Shick then ran into a stairwell and tried unsuccessfully to get out a second-floor door that leads to a parking garage. He ran back downstairs and headed toward the front doors.
At least six University of Pittsburgh police officers entered as Mr. Shick fired toward the hospital's front doors. They split into two groups, and one backed him down a hallway, while the others got behind him and shot him.
City police who arrived shortly after the Pitt officers described a chaotic scene in the hospital lobby, with blood-splattered floors, bullet-riddled walls and people running amid thick gun smoke. Western Psych employee Michael Schaab was killed. All the others wounded by gunfire or injured in the melee are expected to recover.
The extent of the isolation of a man who so relentlessly sought contact with others was clear after his death.
Officials had trouble confirming Mr. Shick's identity because he had no ID on his body, witnesses didn't recognize him and no family members stepped forward.
An item in his jacket pocket with the words "John Schick" (the misspelling led to confusion about his name) and a reference to Carleton College gave them scant clues that led them to Apartment 405 in the Royal York, a spacious one-bedroom with hardwood floors located at a corner of the building that faces east.
Covering a table in the mostly orderly apartment were at least 43 prescription medications to fight ailments such as depression, anxiety, migraines, seizures, chronic kidney disease, impotence, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, intestinal worms, gastric reflux, ulcers, gallbladder trouble, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pancreatitis. There were caffeine pills, sedatives, hypothyroid drugs, narcotic painkillers and drugs to treat Hodgkin's disease. Sources said many of the pills were self-prescribed from online pharmacies overseas.
A piece of paper hanging from the wall had the address of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC.
Rambling messages were handwritten on the walls themselves and in notebooks. They included complaints about his medical treatment, as well as writings about the evils of "corporate America." There was a printed Western Psych brochure providing directions to aid patients and visitors, as well as drawings that appeared to be floor plans of Western Psych, a gas mask and biohazard suit, an empty gun holster, several brown paper bags, doctors bills, wicks and glass bottles that investigators surmised could be the makings of Molotov cocktails, a computer and cell phones bearing text messages.
Police released a post-mortem photo the day after the shooting hoping the public could name him, but shortly thereafter announced that he had been identified.
Investigators found his parents' blog and then sought the help of the U.S. Coast Guard to locate the Shicks, making contact with them last Sunday.
The Shicks communicated with local officials in the days after they were notified, telling the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office that they intended to have a service for their son. They broke their public silence Friday, eight days after the shootings, expressing sympathy for the victims and asking for privacy.
The devastation wrought by their son makes the tragedies of all those connected to him public, and leaves all with unanswered questions.
"Who knows what demons he was fighting?" said Stephen Edwards, the Columbia professor who supervised Mr. Shick on a project.