The gunman who killed two firefighters in an ambush on Monday in this drowsy town on the shores of Lake Ontario expressed a passion for killing and a desire to destroy as much of his neighborhood as possible, the police said on Tuesday.
The gunman, identified as William Spengler, 62, left behind a chilling typewritten note recovered by investigators, Gerald L. Pickering, the police chief in Webster, told reporters on Tuesday. Chief Pickering, who described the writing as rambling, read just a portion of the note: “I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best – killing people.”
Chief Pickering also said that it was likely that the gunman used a semi-automatic rifle, one of three weapons recovered from the shooting scene, to kill the firefighters. He identifed the semi-automatic as a .223 Bushmaster rifle, the same weapon used in the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
The violence on Monday unfolded with a simple call to put out a car fire, the sort of routine job firefighters tackle all the time. The fire truck hurtled to the assignment early Monday in a town that was preparing for the joys of Christmas.
But it apparently was a trap, the authorities said. There were a house and a car burning. There was also a waiting killer, who had stationed himself like a sniper on a berm above the firefighters.
Before they could begin to extinguish the flames, the firefighters were met by a burst of gunfire. Four were hit by the volley of bullets, and two died. An off-duty police officer from nearby Greece, N.Y., who was on his way to work, was wounded when he and his car were hit by shrapnel.
For a few hours, the scene was chaotic: flames ignited adjacent houses as the police frantically searched for the gunman, later identified as Mr. Spengler. They would find him dead near the beach, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Mr. Spengler had a lengthy criminal record and lived in the burning house. In 1981, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter for bludgeoning his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer. He was imprisoned until 1998.
He remained on supervised parole until 2006, and the Webster police said they had not had recent brushes with him. His mother, Arline, who lived in the same house, died this year. A former neighbor, Roger D. Vercruysse, said Mr. Spengler and his sister had also lived in the house, but “he stayed in one part with his mother and his sister stayed in the other part, and they never talked to each other.”
Mr. Spengler’s ire for his sister was matched by love for his mother, Mr. Vercruysse said.
Mr. Spengler did not seem to have a lot of friends, but “every time I needed help, he was there,” Mr. Vercruysse, 64, said, whether it was for shoveling snow or driving Mr. Vercruysse’s blind sister to the store. The police said they found Mr. Spengler with three weapons by his side, including the Bushmaster, a Smith and Wesson. .38-caliber revolver and a Mossberg 12-gauge pump shotgun. The authorities said that they did not know where he had gotten the weapons, but that there had been recent gun thefts in Monroe County, where Webster is. As a felon, Mr. Spengler was prohibited from owning guns.
The authorities said they were unaware of a motive, but Chief Pickering suggested that “there were certainly mental health issues involved.”
The episode comes a little over a week after the Newtown attack, and with the country engaged in an intense debate over gun control and care of the mentally ill. Grieving, Chief Pickering said in an interview: “We know that people are slipping through the cracks, not getting the help they need. And I suspect that this gentleman slipped through the cracks. Maybe he should have been under more intense supervision, maybe he should not have been in the public, maybe he should have been institutionalized, having his problems dealt with.”
The ambush shook residents of Webster, a town 12 miles northeast of Rochester.
“These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires,” Chief Pickering said of his lost firefighters. “They don’t expect to be shot and killed.”
At a news conference, he choked up repeatedly when giving the names of the crew members. The two men killed were Michael J. Chiapperini, 43, a local police lieutenant who owned a window-tinting business, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, a 911 dispatcher for Monroe County.
The two wounded firefighters, Theodore Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter, were listed in guarded to stable condition at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Mr. Hofstetter suffered an injury to his pelvis. Mr. Scardino was shot twice and had shoulder and lung wounds. The wounded off-duty officer, John Ritter, was treated and released from another hospital.
Officer Ritter, in an interview on Tuesday, said he was driving to work at around 5:35 a.m. on Monday when he uknowingly came upon the shooting.
“I go up Lake Road,'’ he said. “I came around the corner and the fire truck is in the road backing up on the left. I hear popping. Pop, pop. Several pops. Suddenly my windshield explodes and there’s a hole right in front of my head. I was in shock. I bent over, leaned over into the passenger seat and slammed it in reverse around the corner,out of the line of sight.”
“I was driving to work like every other average Joe,'’ Officer Ritter added. “I didn’t have the equipment to respond to a sniper.'’
The firefighters belonged to the West Webster Fire Department, a volunteer force whose firehouse is about four miles from where the presumed ambush occurred on Lake Road. By afternoon, people had left bouquets and a wreath at the firehouse, and candles burned in memory of the dead crew members. Purple and black bunting hung over each of the garage bays.
It was just over a year since another shocking crime in Webster involving a house fire. On Dec. 7, 2011, the police said, a 15-year-old named Michael Pilato deliberately set fire to his home, killing his father and two brothers. His mother and sister survived. Mr. Pilato’s trial on charges of murder and arson is to begin in a few weeks.
Webster is a middle-class community of about 43,000 named after the statesman Daniel Webster. The area where the shooting took place perches on a skinny strip sandwiched between Irondequoit Bay and Lake Ontario. Most of the tightly packed wood-frame houses are summer residences, though there are some full-time occupants.
Chief Pickering called it a “little vacation nest” and said that calls for help from there were rare.
After receiving a 911 call from a resident, firefighters responded to the fire at 191 Lake Road shortly after 5:30 a.m. on Monday. When the gunfire began, they retreated to safety. One of the wounded firefighters fled in his car to seek help, while the others were pinned.
Police SWAT teams arrived, and, according to the local police, some three dozen neighbors were evacuated in an armored vehicle.
“We heard gunshots before 6 o’clock, but we thought it was duck hunters,” said Connie Gisel, who lives across the bay from the shooting. Shortly afterward, she said, she received an automated phone call from the authorities urging residents to stay indoors and away from windows.
The police said they suspected that Mr. Spengler had started the fire to draw first responders, whom he meant to kill.
The first Webster officer on the scene chased Mr. Spengler and exchanged fire with him briefly. Chief Pickering praised the officer for potentially saving many lives. The police then flooded the area and hunted for the gunman for hours before he was found dead around 11 a.m., the authorities said.
Not until the police deemed the area secure did firefighters resume putting out the blaze. By then, it had spread to neighboring houses. Ultimately, the authorities said, seven houses were destroyed. As of Monday evening, firefighters had not been able to enter the burned homes to check for victims of the fire. The police said, however, that Mr. Spengler’s sister was unaccounted for.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the State Police and the Office of Emergency Management were collaborating with local officials on the case.
“New York’s first responders are true heroes as they time and again selflessly rush toward danger in order to keep our families and communities safe,” the governor said in a statement.
Chief Pickering said that in his small force, he always had a left-hand and a right-hand lieutenant, and Lieutenant Chiapperini was his left hand. “When he wasn’t working as a police officer, he was always on the first truck at any scene,” he said. “We kidded him all the time: Which hat are you wearing today, Lieutenant?”
He said the lieutenant had been to New York to help in the recovery after Hurricane Sandy. Just weeks ago, he was named firefighter of the year. His son, Nicholas, 19, is a volunteer firefighter as well, though he was not part of the crew that responded. Mr. Kaczowka’s best friend was the lieutenant’s son.
Lieutenant Chiapperini also had two young daughters.
Mr. Kaczowka joined the volunteer force only a year ago. Roberta Gammons, 52, a neighbor, said he was the youngest of three boys from a “lovely nice Catholic family.”
“He absolutely loved his job,” she said. “It didn’t surprise me in the least bit to know that he was one of the first ones on the scene.”
Ms. Gisel, who lives near Mr. Scardino, described him as a “dedicated son, dedicated husband, dedicated father,” for whom volunteering at the fire department was a kind of passion.
Mr. Hofstetter was a full-time Rochester firefighter who also belonged to the West Webster department. His mother teaches in the Webster school district, and his father is a retired teacher.
Vince DiPrima, an assistant manager at Bill Gray’s, a diner across the bridge from the fires, was overwhelmed by the morning’s tragedy. “The stuff that happened in Connecticut the other day, and then this — it’s a weird feeling,” he said. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
As evening drew close, the vigil at the West Webster firehouse grew. Mike Auger, 60, knew Lieutenant Chiapperini for 20 years.
“How ironic that as a policeman he faces this stuff all the time and he gets shot answering a fire call,” Mr. Auger said. “If it had been a police call he would have had the body armor on. A fire call, you think you’re helping people and saving their house.”