LA Fitness shooter had lethal plan
From left, Amanda Tirmble, 13, Elizabeth Scurich, 13, and Zach Young, 14, look into the entryway of Bridgeville's LA Fitness, the site of the fatal shooting of three woman, the day after it occurred.
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This story was written by Lillian Thomas, based on the reporting of staff writers Sadie Gurman, Torsten Ove, Paula Reed Ward and Victor Zapana.
George Sodini scrupulously recorded his fury, his plans and the date he expected to die. He practiced the murderous routine he'd mapped out, and backed out at least once before dressing in black on Tuesday, arming himself with four pistols and gunning down 12 women in a dance class.
He fired one final shot from a .45-caliber pistol into his head.
The shooting occurred just after 8 p.m. in LA Fitness Center in Collier.
Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie, and Elizabeth Gannon, 49, of Green Tree, both died at the scene. Jody Billingsley, 37, of Mt. Lebanon, died at 8:52 p.m. at St. Clair Hospital. Nine others were wounded; at least one of those has since been released.
Allegheny County police yesterday released a list of the victims, including those who were wounded, who were taken to St. Clair, UPMC Mercy and Allegheny General hospitals. They are:
Lisa Fleeher, 27, critical; Ashley Ferragonio, 23, serious; Jackquilyne Gallagher, 25, serious; Srimeenakish Sankar, 31, serious; Gretchen Lewis, 26, critical; Melina Williams, 22, serious; Mary Primis, 26, critical; Heather Sherba, 22, serious, and; Stephanie Latusick, 33, treated and released.
The blog kept by Mr. Sodini, 48, of Scott indicates he planned the shooting for months. It is headed with personal information that includes both his birth date -- "DOB 9/30/1960" -- and a death date: "DOD 8/4/2009."
Though his anger and frustration over not being able to connect with women were reflected in his online writings and two notes he left behind, he apparently did not know any of the women he targeted at the fitness club, said Allegheny County Police Superintendent Charles Moffatt.
"He had no relationship to anyone in the club that we know of," he said yesterday.
Mr. Sodini, an employee of K&L Gates since 1999, visited the club earlier Tuesday, starting at about 11 a.m., when he first used the club's card swipe to check in. Members aren't required to check out, so police aren't sure when he left. No one at the club remembers seeing Mr. Sodini, but Superintendent Moffatt said that's not surprising because the club has 3,800 members.
He swiped back in at about 7:40 p.m., then stepped back out to make a cell phone call to someone police would not identify.
Superintendent Moffatt said Mr. Sodini had a conversation with that person and that police were trying to contact him or her, but he would say no more about the conversation.
Mr. Sodini then returned at 7:56 p.m.
He carried four guns when he walked into the club just before 8 p.m. -- two 9mm pistols with 30-round clips, a .45-caliber pistol and a .32 semiautomatic in his pocket. He also had two extra 30-round clips in his gym bag.
All told, police estimate he was carrying 150 rounds.
Dressed in black pants and a black jacket and wearing a black headband, he walked into the exercise room where the aerobics class was being held and held the light switch down for 15 seconds. Police said someone at the club had previously shown him how to turn off the lights by holding the switch down that long.
With the lights out, he walked 10 feet into the room, dropped the gym bag and started firing, emptying one 9mm, the shots splintering mirrors in the room. Fleeing women scattered, running to his side to get out of the glass doors.
One woman narrowly avoided being shot by diving behind thick aerobics mats, which absorbed a slug. He drew a second 9mm gun and fired, but stopped shooting before emptying the weapon, leaving 12 rounds in the clip.
He fired at least 36 rounds, then drew his .45 and shot himself in the head, collapsing against a wall between a set of aerobic steps. He never used the .32, leaving it in his pocket. The entire episode lasted about a minute, Superintendent Moffatt said.
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. Responding police found a chaotic scene. The bodies of Ms. Gannon, Ms. Overmier and Mr. Sodini were found in the aerobics room where the dance class was held, and shell casings littered the bloody floor.
About 70 people were in the gym at the time the gunman opened fire.
The fitness club was closed yesterday and a message said it would remain so indefinitely.
"We have all been shocked and saddened by the tragedy that occurred at our club on Aug. 4," said a voice on a message left on the club's answering machine. "The club is closed while we undergo repairs. It is still too early to know when we'll reopen."
The club "continues to assist the local authorities," the message said, and is offering counseling services to members and staff.
A search of Mr. Sodini's bag revealed a typed note in which he complained about being rejected by women and his hatred for them. A search of his house turned up a handwritten note in which Mr. Sodini said he planned to kill himself.
Detectives also found four rifles and shotguns in the house and seized his computer, which federal agents are examining to piece together his online rants and any other evidence of his mind-set and plans.
Police were processing Mr. Sodini's car yesterday.
Agents from the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responded to the scene and offered their help, Superintendent Moffatt said, and ATF traced three of Mr. Sodini's weapons. He had a permit to carry a concealed weapon and legally owned three of the guns. He bought the two 9mms in 2008 and the .45 this year. Superintendent Moffatt wasn't sure about the history of the .32.
Police said Mr. Sodini carefully planned the attack and apparently targeted the aerobics class because it contained all women. At his house, detectives found a gym schedule on which he had circled the Latin Impact class.
"He had a lot of hatred for women," Superintendent Moffatt said, "And he was hell-bent on committing this act and nothing was going to stop him."
His blog indicates he attempted to carry out the shooting at least one other time, on Jan. 6. He wrote in his blog that he entered the club, which is located in the Great Southern Shopping Center on Route 50, with loaded guns 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 he 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. ... Total effort needed. Tomorrow is the big day."
County computer crimes investigators are reviewing the blog to see who else might have read it, if they knew what he was planning and, if so, why no one came forward. Superintendent Moffatt said there was no legal obligation to do so, but a moral and ethical one. Police have no knowledge that Mr. Sodini had a mental health treatment history, nor did he have any prior police record.
Police yesterday morning questioned Pastor Rick Knapp of Tetelestai Church, who was mentioned in the blog. Mr. Knapp went to Oakmont police this morning because he was concerned his name and contact information were in the blog, according to Oakmont Chief David DiSanti Sr. The chief contacted Allegheny County police.
Mr. Knapp said he knew Mr. Sodini as a member of his congregation, but was not well acquainted with him; Mr. Sodini left the church in 2006, he said. 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.
But whatever insights anyone was able provide to Mr. Sodini's motives, it meant little to the relatives and friends of those who died by such a random act of rage.
"Of course there's anger," said Connie Moneck, the sister of Heidi Overmier. "Not so much anger, [you] just total can't comprehend why someone would do this to perfectly innocent people," Ms. Moneck, 52, said.
"It was just totally random."
First Published August 6, 2009 12:00 am