St. Vincent students gather to mourn Matthew Russo
Anthony Altieri was supposed to work with Matthew Russo on Thursday night.
Instead, he was mourning the loss of his friend and St. Vincent College classmate, as other students and faculty gathered for a memorial service in the campus chapel last evening.
"He was a really friendly, very nice person" who always had a positive outlook, said Altieri, a junior communications major.
Matthew Russo, 21, and his mother, Mary Russo, 52, both of Brentwood in Allegheny County, died from gunshot wounds in an apparent murder-suicide just before 5 p.m. Wednesday in a vehicle parked at Red Lobster restaurant in Hempfield, according to the Westmoreland County coroner. They were pronounced dead at the scene.
Investigators yesterday withheld details surrounding the deaths. Autopsies were conducted yesterday morning, and officials said they will investigate further before releasing the manner and cause of death for the pair.
The memorial service for Russo, held in the student lounge on the campus in Unity, was attended by about 400 people, the majority of them students.
A candlelight procession to the Latimer Family Library on campus, headquarters for the school's education department, followed the service.
Outside in the chill night air, students and a sprinkling of adults crowded around a simple makeshift memorial at a stone bench consisting of two bouquets of flowers and two photographs of Russo dressed as Santa Claus.
Kari Maurer, president of the college's Early Childhood Education Club, speaking to the throng at the procession, called Russo "our Santa, our future teacher and our friend."
Many of the students were in tears. Other shared hugs. Hardly anyone spoke, and those who did, spoke very quietly.
The Rev. Killian Loch, director of campus ministry, said he was impressed by the silence.
Loch said that the shock of Wednesday's deaths had given way yesterday to grief.
Speaking at the service, Loch said an unusually large of number of students had gathered together on Wednesday and then again yesterday to mourn their classmate, and to help one another in a time of loss.
"We feel beaten," Loch said. "We might say, 'God, you have abandoned us.' " But, he added, faith "perseveres." He reminded students that Christ's faith on the eve of his Crucifixion wavered but never broke.
Benedictine Brother Norman Hipps, the college's president, said Russo had dressed up as Santa Claus on Saturday during an event at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve.
"The last time I saw him was him inviting children to sit on his lap and asking what they wanted for Christmas," Hipps said. "I didn't know him well, but I do know from the sad occasion of his death the kind of meaning he had for so many classmates and friends."
Hipps said Mary Russo drove to campus on Wednesday to pick up her son for a meal at Red Lobster restaurant.
According to the coroner's report, Matthew Russo died at 4:53 p.m. and Mary Russo died at 4:54 p.m. State police found a handgun in the car registered to Mary Russo but have not said who fired the shots.
Police said they do not believe a third party was involved in the incident.
A man who answered the door at the Russos' home yesterday said the family had no comment.
Matthew Russo's future in elementary education was very important to him, Altieri said.
"He really enjoyed doing it," he said.
Russo was involved with an enrichment program called "Step-Up" in which education majors work with homeschoolers of all ages.
Sophomore education major Angela Lusk said she would see Russo weekly at "Step-Up." He didn't have to be there, Lusk said, but he would come anyway to see the kids.
Lusk said Russo loved education and children.
"He was a real people person," she said. "I don't know why someone would do that to someone so nice."
Russo was very involved in the St. Vincent community, according to information on the college's website from his sophomore year. He was a Big Brother for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and participated in campus clubs and student government.
Fellow student Tori Magiera met him through student government during their freshman year.
"He was one of the most honest, genuine and good-hearted kids I have ever met," Magiera said in an e-mail to the Tribune-Review. "I cannot even begin to describe what a terrible loss this is and how much people will miss him."
Magiera said she didn't know what kind of a relationship existed between the mother and son.
Counselors and campus ministers worked with students as news of the shooting spread.
"Campus ministers spent time with students in the chapel in prayer or in the campus ministry lounge where so many students gathered with just that kind of shock," Hipps said. "The question of, 'How could this be• How could this happen?'"
Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed to this report.