Four dead in fitness center shooting

Among the dead, gunman had note in gym bag

The man police believe shot 12 people at a Collier health club last night kept a log detailing his plans to commit a mass killing there since at least November.

"Why do this?? To young girls? Just read below," wrote George Sodini, 48, of Scott. "I kept a running log that includes my thoughts and actions, after I saw this project was going to drag on."

The shooting occurred just after 8 p.m., when the gunman walked into LA Fitness Center in Collier with a duffel bag, turned out the lights in a room where a dance class was going on, then opened fire on the women in the room. Three were dead and at least nine wounded before he turned the gun on himself. Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie, died at the scene at 8:24 p.m. Elizabeth Gannon, 49, of Green Tree, died at the scene at 8:24 p.m. Jody Billingsley, 38, of Mt. Lebanon, died at 8:52 p.m. at St. Clair Hospital.

The log kept by George Sodini shows he planned the shooting for months, and backed out several times. Mr. Sodini, an employee of K&L Gates since 1999, previously worked at Development Dimensions International, located in Bridgeville near the club.

He entered the club, which is located in the Great Southern Shopping Center on Route 50, with loaded guns on Jan. 6 but didn't go through with it. "It is 8:45PM: I chickened out!" he wrote. "I brought the loaded guns, everything. Hell!"

The journal also names family members and acquaintances, and expresses rage at many of them, as well as frustration at not being able to connect with women.

On Aug. 3 he wrote: "I took off today, Monday, and tomorrow to practice my routine and make sure it is well polished. I need to work out every detail, there is only one shot. Also I need to be completely immersed into something before I can be successful. I haven't had a drink since Friday about 2:30. Total effort needed. Tomorrow is the big day."

The story the victims told was tragically repeated time and again: The man, carrying a gym bag, walked into an exercise room, stood in a corner for about a minute before he turned off the lights.

Then the shooting started, and amid the scene of chaos three women were killed, nine wounded. The shooter apparently then turned the gun on himself. Hospital officials believe the wounded victims will all survive. One of the five victims, who was at UPMC Mercy, has been released, according to spokeswoman Linda Ross. The other four there are in serious condition.

Detectives found a note inside the gym bag which had apparently been used to bring two handguns into the facility where the shooter was a member.

Allegheny County Police Superintendent Charles Moffatt would not disclose the contents of the note but said considering the fact the shooter was carrying guns and the note it was fair to assume he did not expect to leave the facility alive.

In his log, Mr. Sodini wrote: "Also, any of the 'Practice Papers' left on my coffee table I used or the notes in my gym bag can be published freely. I will not be embarrassed, because, well, I will be dead."

Superintendent Moffatt said: "He did what he set out to do. I don't think anyone could have stopped him, to be honest."

Police this morning questioned the pastor mentioned in the blog of George Sodini, the man police believe killed three women and wounded nine others before killing himself last night at the LA Fitness Center in Collier.

Pastor Rick Knapp of Tetelestai Church went to Oakmont police this morning because he was concerned his name and contact information was in the blog written by George Sostini, according to Chief David DiSanti Sr. The chief contacted Allegheny County police, who are handling the homicide investigation of the shootings.

Chief DiSanti and a homicide detective interviewed Mr. Knapp from about 9:45 to 10:30 a.m. Mr. Knapp said he knew Mr. Sodini as a member of his congregation, but was not well acquainted with him. In his blog, Mr. Sodini wrote that the pastor had convinced him that "you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven." The pastor said he had never talked to Mr. Sodini along those lines, according to Chief DiSanti.

All of the victims were women, although it was unknown whether the gunman was specifically targeting only women and the superintendent declined to discuss a possible relationship between the shooter and any of the victims.

The wounded were taken to UPMC Mercy, Allegheny General and St. Clair hospitals.

PG Graphic
Locator Map: L.A. Fitness Center in the Great Southern Shopping Center, Collier.

Collier Police Chief Thomas Devin said his department received a dispatch from 911 at 8:16 p.m. that there had been a shooting at LA Fitness. He said he did not know where the 911 call originated from.

At the early morning press conference Superintendent Moffatt said investigators believe the suspect entered the facility around 8 p.m. using his membership identification card which he swiped at the front door.

"He didn't say anything. He walked right into the room as if he knew exactly where he was going," said Superintendent Moffatt.

Police said the shooter may have fired as many as 50 rounds in the 20 foot by 20 foot workout room. The weapons were legally owned and purchased by the shooter, police said.

The shooter killed himself in the same room. His body was found on top of one of the guns, just seven feet away from one victim and 15 feet away from another.

Detectives were working this morning to identify the dead and the wounded, who were being treated at area hospitals.

"As you can imagine, at a fitness club, they don't have their IDs on them, people don't know who they are," he said.

Superintendent Moffatt last night could not comment on the extent of their injuries, as officers had not yet been able to travel to hospitals to check on them.

"The scene was so chaotic we felt it was more important to secure the scene," he said.

This story was written by Post-Gazette staff writer Matthew P. Smith based on his reporting and that of staff writers Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, Dan Majors, Sadie Gurman, Chuck Finder, Annie Tubbs, Cindi Lash and Michael A. Fuoco.

Collier officers were called to the fitness center at 8:16 p.m., and the shooting had already ended. Police said the gunfire was confined to a workout room, where detectives recovered two guns. Police did not disclose what kind of weapons they were.

Three bodies were found inside the exercise the room. They were removed about 12:35 this morning.

Neither Superintendent Moffatt nor Chief Devin could offer a motive for the shooting, saying the investigation was in its infancy.

"I've never seen nothing quite like this," Superintendent Moffatt said.

About 70 people were in the gym at the time the gunman opened fire.

"I couldn't count the number of shots that were fired right now," he added, saying detectives were processing the scene to try to determine that.

UPMC Mercy spokeswoman Linda Ross said her hospital received five of the victims -- all women with multiple gunshot wounds who initially were in critical condition. Three of the victims were later upgraded to serious condition.

Two other women were being treated at Allegheny General Hospital.

Stacey Falk, 26, of Bridgeville, said she was in an aerobics room with 30 to 40 other women when a short, clean-shaven man, dressed in workout clothes, walked in with a bag. He stood in a corner near a racquetball court for a moment, put the bag down and turned off the lights in the room.

He pulled out a gun and started firing and people began falling to the floor. Ms. Falk said she briefly got a look at what appeared to be a short-barrel rifle.

"Girls were just ducking behind each other. All I could hear were shots and screams," she said. She was shaking as she recounted the shooting and relatives huddled around her, giving her something warm to ward off the chills.

Among those who were shot was the aerobics class instructor, who had just told her class she was pregnant. The woman was shot in the shoulder.

Ron Michaels, of Collier, a racquetball instructor at the fitness club, said he was in a racquetball court, near the aerobics room, when he heard gunshots.

"I saw these women running out of the aerobics room, hysterical," he said. He said he heard about 15 shots.

"I think I saw three or four injured people being taken to ambulances after I was out in the parking lot," he said.

He said the club has been open since last August. "We've never had any problems whatsoever. This is unbelievable."

He said the first floor of the building contains five racquetball courts, a large aerobics room, free weights and weight machines, a swimming pool, and a basketball court. There are treadmills and eliptical machines on a second level.

The scene outside the fitness center was chaotic last evening as dozens of ambulances, police cars and other emergency vehicles converged on the area, some from as far away as Brentwood. They were soon joined by dozens of concerned relatives and friends of people who were inside the club at the time of the shooting.

Tony Williams said his daughter, Melina, 22, told him that she was in the aerobics area "when he came in with a bag and started shooting." He couldn't say what kind of weapon the gunman used.

His daughter, he said, was shot in the knee and fell to the floor. A friend helped her to safety.

"She's going to be OK," the distraught father said.

Many of those who got out of the gym safely credited the fitness center staff with calmly steering people toward the exits.

After the shooting, scores of those people milled about the parking lot outside the fitness center, which had been taped off and was inaccessible to those who left personal property inside.

Lauren Dooley, 26, was inside the center when the shooting broke out on the first floor. She was on a treadmill, listening to her iPod.

"I saw people flying off the treadmills, hitting the ground" for cover, Ms. Dooley said. "We crawled through the fire escape and I sprinted out the back."

She said she heard 12 to 15 shots, possibly coming from an aerobics room.

A man who was playing racquetball said the scene inside was total chaos.

"It was panic," said Perry Calabro, 53, of Bridgeville. "Then we realized it was gunfire. Once the shooting started, everybody started running. "

He counted about eight shots.

The fitness center is located in the Great Southern Shopping Center, a U-shaped plaza containing dozens of stores, shops and restaurants, including Altmeyer's the Home Store. Kim Aubele, the store's associate manager, said the employees were getting ready to close shortly after 8 p.m., when two women ran into the store.

The women were hysterical, screaming for someone to call 911. "At first, I didn't think they were serious. But then we called and we hid behind the desk.

"They were yelling, 'hurry up! Hurry up!' There was a shooting!' So we locked the door and we called."

Sean Carroll, of Mt. Lebanon, joined the club yesterday. Last night was to have been his first night to work out there.

"I just registered for this place. I was just pulling up in front when my friend started calling. I thought he was kidding. Then I saw all this," he said, gesturing to all the commotion. "It's just scary. You have a public facility like this and who knows what can happen.

"Thank God I played golf today and didn't come out here earlier to work out."

Good samaritans came to the rescue of several of the victims, including Jill Mazur, 21, of Upper St. Clair.

Ms. Mazur showed up at 8:15 p. m. to work out with her friend Tracey Smith, 22, of Oakdale.

Moments after she stepped through the door, people started sprinting past her and a man grabbed her by the arm and whisked her into the parking lot.

"Strangers dragged people out," Ms. Mazur said. A man she knew only as Don took her to his car while her friends piled into a car with almost a half-dozen others.

"Everyone's keys were in there, locked up," Ms. Mazur said. "People were trying to get as far away from the building as they could. They didn't know if the guy was going to come out."

Ms. Mazur and Ms. Smith work out like clockwork at 8 p.m. on weeknights in the weights area across from the aerobics room where the shootings occurred.

"For some really strange reason, we made it 8:15 tonight," Ms. Mazur said.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato is vacationing out of town, but issued a statement last night about the shooting.

"Tonight, an unspeakable tragedy occurred in Collier Township. Our sincere condolences go out to the families of the victims, and we pray for the recovery of those who were injured. The Allegheny County police and Medical Examiner are on scene and investigating this incident. I have made the full resources of the Allegheny County government available to assist with this catastrophe. The county police will provide updates as information becomes available. I ask everyone to keep those affected by this tragic event in their thoughts and prayers."

A spokesman for K&L Gates confirmed that Mr. Sodini worked there since 1999. He was a systems analyst in the finance department. The spokesman confirmed that Andrew Pulkowski, whom Sodini writes about in the blog, is director of planning and development. The company released this statement: "K&L Gates is deeply saddened by last night's events, and offers its condolences to the families and friends of all who were involved in this terrible tragedy."

Mr. Sodini previously worked at Development Dimensions International in Bridgeville. A spokeswoman said: "George Sodini did contract work for DDI, but has not worked here in more than 10 years. DDI is sorry for the losses of the individuals and the families involved in last night's violent act."

Gov. Ed Rendell called it "another senseless shooting and a tragic shooting. It's a case where someone who clearly shouldn't have had a firearm because of mental problems had a firearm. This guy had severe mental problems. He had a deep abiding hatred of women."

First Published August 5, 2009 4:15 AM


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