Former cop who shot up federal building had 'anti-government bias'
WHEELING, W.Va. — Neighbors described him as pleasant but quiet. Former colleagues at the Wheeling Police Department called him “good police.”
Yet retired Officer Thomas J. Piccard, 55, of Bridgeport, Ohio, killed by police on Wednesday while firing 18 to 25 bullets at a federal courthouse, harbored “animosity towards the government,” U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II said.
“He had an anti-government bias,” Ihlenfeld said on Thursday. He and FBI officials would not discuss the investigation, but Ihlenfeld said evidence of Piccard's bias includes more than just the building he targeted.
Armed with an assault weapon and a handgun on Wednesday, Piccard fired the assault rifle from a parking lot across the street from the federal building before a Wheeling officer shot him in the side, killing him, law enforcement officials said.
“Not being able to get into his mind, we're not sure if he was shooting at people or just the building,” FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba said.
Three people had minor injuries from glass from broken windows, she said. Officials did not release their names.
Piccard, unmarried, lived alone in a trailer park across the Ohio River, neighbors said. Federal investigators searched the home but would not say what they found.
“We're comfortable in the safety of the public,” FBI Special Agent John Hambrick said. “He acted alone.”
A section of wall was missing from Piccard's home, where garbage cans in the yard were overturned, revealing black plastic bags and a pizza box. The porch light was on. Hambrick would not say what the wall panel might have revealed.
Neighbors Becky Gillespie and Lori LeMasters described Piccard as friendly but reclusive.
“He didn't talk too much,” LeMasters said. “He mostly stayed indoors. We'd love to know what happened, because he seemed like a normal guy.”
She said she recently heard Piccard had stomach cancer, but she never spoke to him about it.
“He was just a pleasant guy,” Gillespie said. “He'd wave to me.”
Wheeling police Sgt. Gregg McKenzie, Piccard's partner for a year in the late 1990s, described him as “very aggressive ... in a good way.”
“I mean, it was constant; we would just go,” he said. “People knew out in East Wheeling when we were out on midnight patrol.”
Retired Wheeling police Detective Jim Wright said Piccard worked for him briefly in 1989 in the drug unit. Piccard went undercover to buy drugs from local dealers, he said.
“He did what was expected, and he did it well,” Wright said. “You have to think something snapped along the line. I don't know. I can't even comment on it. It's been so long since I've seen him. It's tragic.”
Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger did not release the name of the officer who fatally shot Piccard.
“We're looking out for that officer,” he said. “He has a lot of support.”
At the courthouse, crews repaired broken windows as employees struggled to return to a normal routine, Ihlenfeld said. Many staff members were terrified when they heard gunfire and dropped to the floor to avoid the bullets, he said.
“There weren't many people there today,” said Ihlenfeld, who gave people the option to stay home. “I understand why. Everyone, I think, is still shaken by it.”
Piccard left the department in 2000. He had no criminal record or signs of mental illness, officials said.
“But we're still finding out more and more about Mr. Piccard,” Kochamba said.
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.