2 murdered, gunman dead at Hempfield apartment building
A gunman who chased his two upstairs neighbors outside, shot them in the street and left them to die in view of other tenants put a massive Hempfield Township apartment complex in lockdown for more than seven hours on Wednesday as state troopers went door to door searching for him.
Around 2:30 p.m., they found him, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, in his apartment at Hempfield Heights, state police spokesman Steve Limani said.
Westmoreland County Prison Warden John Walton confirmed that one of the victims was Christina White, 23, a part-time corrections officer hired in August.
“I can confirm she is a guard at the prison,” Walton said.
He said Deputy Warden Steve Cmar went to the scene and identified White for state police.
The name of the other victim, believed to be White's boyfriend, and the gunman will not be released until Thursday, Limani said.
According to several neighbors, the gunman had often argued with White and her boyfriend about loud music.
Limani would not confirm that the ongoing dispute was the motive.
Shortly after 7 a.m., a resident in the complex called state police to report gunshots. “When we arrived, we found two people dead,” Limani said.
Elena DeLuca said she was awakened by the series of bangs outside her building.
“Just after 7 a.m. I heard pop, pop, pop, pop,” she said. “I thought it was fireworks. When I heard the whistles and sirens, that's what alerted me that it wasn't fireworks.”
Trista Baughman also said she was awakened by the gunfire.
“I looked outside and there was a body laying in the road, dead. He was all bloody. There was blood all over,” she said. “State police told me to get back inside.”
One of the victims, a bald white man, wore a ball cap and jeans, she said. A woman lying nearby also appeared to be dead.
Police cordoned off a section of West Hills Drive, blocking anyone from entering the complex near Z&M Cycle Shop. Numerous state troopers in tactical gear and with rifles pointed searched the area. Tenants who briefly left were not allowed back onto the property.
Thinking the shooter was still in the area, state police issued a warning to the public to stay away from the complex, located just off Route 30 east.
Troopers spent the next hours pursuing the gunman in the complex, which has nine apartment buildings and hundreds of tenants. All the buildings were in lockdown into the afternoon and a SWAT team was on standby.
“We're fortunate no one else was injured with the number of people who live in the complex,” Limani said.
Troopers had an idea where the gunman was located and started the door-to-door search, Limani said. They narrowed it down to an apartment in Building F.
DeLuca heard troopers calling to the suspect through a bullhorn.
“We just want to talk to you, Philip. Nobody's going to hurt you,” the troopers pleaded over and over, she said.
The gunman never responded to the pleas, Limani said.
After a pause, troopers sent a remote-controlled robot into the apartment, DeLuca said.
At 2:30 p.m., troopers entered the apartment and found the man dead of a gunshot to the head.
Limani said both the time of the shootings and the size of Hempfield Heights posed a challenge for the tactical team.
“First of all, when it began, you had children and parents out getting ready for school, people leaving for work, and then there are so many people remaining throughout the housing complex,” Limani said. “You have to be careful and yet be very aggressive at the same time.”
Autopsies were to be conducted on Thursday evening by forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht and Associates.
By afternoon, relatives gathered at the home of White's family in Jeannette.
Shawn Hill said he left work when he heard the news of his cousin's death.
“She was a beautiful girl. She took care of her responsibilities,” Hill said. “She was a real beautiful young lady.”
White had worked as a security guard at Wal-Mart until she was hired at the prison.
Another cousin, Jazmine Hall, said White was devoted to her family.
“All she was worried about was her family,” Hall said.
Hempfield Area School Superintendent Andy Leopold said Fort Allen Elementary School, Harrold Middle School and the nearby high school were not locked down during the incident. But as a precaution, children were not allowed outside for recess or physical education classes.
Leopold said some students who attend the three schools live in Hempfield Heights.
State police notified Leopold around 2:30 p.m. that the alert had been lifted.