An Ohio County Sherriff Department deputy secures an area in front of the Federal Buildng in Wheeling, West Virginia Wedneday, Oct. 9, 2013, following a shooting outside the courthouse. (AP Photo/Wheeling News Register & The Intelligencer, Scott McCloskey)
by Vicki Smith
Associated Press Writer
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — Security was tight Thursday at a West Virginia federal courthouse, a day after it was peppered with gunfire by an ex-police officer who neighbors say had recently revealed that he had cancer.
Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said Thomas J. Piccard, 55, of Bridgeport, Ohio, was armed with an assault weapon and a handgun Wednesday. Standing across the street in a parking lot, he got off up to two dozen shots at the building in the small West Virginia panhandle city before law enforcement shot him to death, officials said.
Schwertfeger did not say whether Piccard used both weapons during the assault on the Wheeling Federal Building or speculate on a motive. Officials said they had no knowledge of any sort of note left behind.
Residents in the neighborhood around Piccard’s trailer home in Bridgeport, a few miles west of Wheeling, returned to their homes by Thursday morning. They were told to leave while police searched Piccard’s home, although authorities didn’t give a reason for the evacuation.
“We’re not going to discuss what we found. It’s standard procedure. I really can’t comment on that,” said FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba in Pittsburgh.
Trailer park residents Mahlon Shields and Lori LeMasters told The Associated Press that Piccard had disclosed in the past few days that he had stomach cancer.
Shields, 25, who has lived across the street from Piccard for about a year, said the man appeared to be thin and pale. Shields said a neighbor told him that Piccard wanted to go to Florida to die.
“I don’t think he wanted to hurt people,” Shields said. “I think he was afraid to commit suicide.”
LeMasters said she cut Piccard’s grass the past two summers and got paid $10 because Piccard didn’t have a lawnmower. She said he wasn’t talkative and lived alone.
At the three-story gray federal building, yellow crime scene tape was wrapped around the entrance and barricades were still in place. Just one judge was hearing cases and the courthouse was open only to workers and people with appointments. The building in the city of about 28,000 houses a variety of courtrooms and related offices, including those for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement.
People inside the building ducked under desks as the shots struck the building and shattered windows. Three on-duty security officers were injured by flying debris during the onslaught, Schwertfeger said.
U.S. Attorney Bill Ihlenfeld said shots were fired into at least three rooms in his office on the building’s second floor Wednesday. He described hearing gunshots, then panic among staff.
“Members of my staff were crawling on the floor or running from office to office telling people to get away from the windows,” he said.
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said Thursday that police who briefed him indicated Piccard left the police force in 2000 after serving more than 10 years. McKenzie said he didn’t know the circumstances behind Piccard’s departure, but that he didn’t have enough service to qualify for retirement.
Ihlenfeld said he knew Piccard from 1997 until the officer left the force. He said he had no reason to believe his office was targeted, and that Piccard was not under any sort of investigation by federal authorities.
“There was nothing about my relation with him or anything that I observed in dealing with him … to cause me to think anything like this would happen,” he said.
About 40 percent of Ihlenfeld’s staff was furloughed because of the federal government shutdown, so many weren’t working on Wednesday.
Asked if the gunman had any beef with the U.S. government, Chief Deputy Mike Claxton of the U.S. Marshals Service in northern West Virginia said, “We’re really digging hard at this point to find out.”
Officials said it was too early to tell whether Piccard was targeting anyone in the building.
Piccard’s body will be sent to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Charleston for an autopsy.
Associated Press writer John Raby in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.