PITTSBURGH – Before opening fire on an aerobics class, George Sodini wrote about feeling lonely and rejected – yet those very characteristics put him in the company of other mass killers whose isolation helped create a murderous cocktail.
Sodini’s deadly rampage at a suburban Pittsburgh health club shares threads with other massacres analyzed by psychiatrists and legal experts, who say the line between lonely and homicidal remains hard to place.
“These people get into a very self-centred, sometimes self-aggrandizing, often psychotic path that enables them, in their mind, to finally get the attention they crave,” New York attorney Carolyn Wolf, whose firm specializes in mental health issues, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday.
The 48-year-old Sodini fatally shot himself after killing three women and wounding nine others attending a weekly Latin dance aerobics class in Collier Township on Tuesday night. He wore black workout gear and fumbled around in a duffel bag before producing three guns, firing indiscriminately after shutting off the lights.
Killed were Heidi Overmier, 46, Jody Billingsley, 37, and Elizabeth Gannon, 49.
About 75 people turned out in downtown Pittsburgh for a vigil Thursday night to remember the victims, offering prayers, lighting candles and observing a moment of silence. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was among the mourners.
Police say Sodini didn’t know his victims. His scathing, 4,000-plus-word blog reads like a monthslong diary lamenting his wrongful rejection by “30 million” American women and alluding to his plans.
When Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, then committed suicide, his “message” was a video tirade to NBC railing about being overlooked by “snobs” and rich “brats.”
When Jiverly Wong killed 13 people and himself at a Binghamton, New York, immigration centre in April, it was uncovered that unemployment, perceived police persecution, mockery for poor English skills and a dose of psychosis led him to kill.
While their grievances, lifestyles and mental states varied widely – Cho and Wong had documented mental problems, while, so far, there’s no indication Sodini did – Wolf said their choice to kill others, and not just themselves, shows they had one thing in common.
“They’re thinking, ‘I want everyone to understand and appreciate why I’m doing this,’ and the way to do that, in their mind, is to kill other people and not just themselves,” Wolf said. “In their mind it sends a broader message.”
Many mass murderers feel rejected by a “pseudo community” – a group that may exist, only in their minds, that has rejected them, said Dr. James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist at the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. He spoke Thursday at a conference he organized to analyze the actions of Wong and Cho.
“He probably worked out at this gym, he was tanning and working out, trying to improve himself,” Knoll said of Sodini. “These are things he thought would get him a relationship. It wasn’t working.”
Dr. Michael Welner is a forensic psychiatrist and associate professor at New York University and frequent expert witness in criminal matters, including two other mass shootings near Pittsburgh about nine years ago.
On March 1, 2000, a black man named Ronald Taylor killed three white men, including a handyman fixing his apartment door, and police later found a racist screed in his home. Less than two months later, Richard Baumhammers, a white unemployed immigration lawyer, killed five ethnic minorities after frequenting racist Web sites.
Neither man tried suicide, and both were convicted of murder. Yet both, Welner said, had something in common with Sodini: They were chronic failures with women and isolated loners who “diverted their masculinity to destructive episodes that make them significant and larger than life.”
In his Web diary, Sodini wrote that his anger stemmed from unfulfilled desire: The women at his gym “look so beautiful as to not be human,” he wrote.
Two undated videos apparently recorded by Sodini were posted on Starcasm.net showing him touring his home and talking about hiding his emotions and trying to “emotionally connect” with people.
He notes that a sofa and chair in his living room match and says, “women will really be impressed.” He also focuses on reading material on a table that includes a book titled “Date Young Women.”
Wong, the Binghamton shooter, sent a message – but it wasn’t received until three days later, when a letter he wrote arrived at News 10 Now in Syracuse. In it, he repeated a psychotic fantasy he’d had for years about undercover police officers dogging him.
Sodini spoke to his mother by cellphone shortly before entering the fitness club, said Charles Moffatt, Allegheny County police superintendent. He wouldn’t say what they discussed.
It’s unclear when Sodini posted his screeds and videos and whether they were meant as warnings. Dr. Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, said the timing of such messages means everything.
“Someone who puts it out in advance may have ambivalence; they may want to be stopped,” Manevitz said. “The guy who does it after the fact is leaving the explanation, the diary of what it is that they’re hoping will be understood in their very irrational mind.”
Ben Dobbin reported from Syracuse, New York.