Police: Hempfield couple ambushed by gunman, shot 11 times

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 12:03 p.m.

Christina White and her fiancé, Timothy Reffner, were building careers and looking forward to building a life together.

White, 23, had a new job as a Westmoreland County Prison guard. Reffner, 30, an Army veteran who recently returned home from a tour in Iraq, was working at a Somerset distributing company and had just been certified as a professional fitness trainer.

Those dreams ended abruptly and violently when a neighbor, Philip Cancilla, a 51-year-old machinist, ambushed and shot the couple to death outside their Hempfield Heights apartment.

The pair was leaving their apartment in Building F to do laundry about 7:13 a.m. Wednesday when they saw Cancilla, their downstairs neighbor, armed with two handguns, state police spokesman Steve Limani said.

Reffner and White dropped their laundry and ran.

Cancilla chased them into the street. Firing both handguns, he put five shots into White's head and back. He shot Reffner six times, Coroner Ken Bacha said.

Police said Cancilla, who lived alone, and the couple had argued many times about loud music and other noise. Both had made complaints to the apartment manager in the past two weeks.

“It's a shame that two young, productive citizens tragically lost their lives over something like this,” Bacha said.

The nine-building apartment complex was in lockdown for more than seven hours on Wednesday as state troopers went door to door searching for the gunman. Around 2:30 p.m., they found Cancilla dead in his apartment, Limani said.

Before Cancilla shot himself in the left temple, he scrawled a message on a yellow sticky note, police said.

“Can only be provoked for so long before exploding,” he wrote.

Bacha believes Cancilla shot himself shortly after killing Reffner and White.

Just five minutes before the shootings, Reffner had talked on the phone with his brother Edward of Boswell, Somerset County, Bacha said. Edward told authorities that Reffner completed his tour of duty in Iraq “without a scratch,” only to be shot to death back home, just steps from his front door.

The violent deaths stunned not only the coroner, but veteran police investigators as well, Limani said.

“These are absolutely horrific deaths ... a real tragedy. How can you do this ... shoot at people, killing them over this?” Limani said.

Cancilla had no criminal record, and his guns were licensed, Limani said. Court records show he had financial problems.

He had worked for 18 months as a guard for a security company in Maryland, according to bankruptcy court records in Pittsburgh.

He filed for bankruptcy in 2005, listing assets of more than $14,000 and liabilities exceeding $49,000. Among his assets were a 9 mm rifle and .45-caliber and .22-caliber pistols.

White and Reffner were shot with weapons of the same caliber, police said.

At the time of the filing, Cancilla was living in the Luxor section of Hempfield in a mobile home, which was repossessed.

Cancilla's Facebook page lists only one friend, and neighbors described him as a loner.

He was interested in physical fitness, hand-to-hand fighting techniques and mixed martial arts, he said on Facebook.

He reportedly worked as a machinist at Latrobe Machining Co. in Unity. An employee who answered the phone at the business said he was “not at liberty” to discuss other employees.

On Thursday, Curtis “Zeus” Gantt pulled his pickup truck along the curb outside White's family home in Jeannette.

Gantt rolled down the window and politely told reporters waiting on the sidewalk that he did not want to talk about his younger sister.

But he couldn't resist.

“She was the biggest sweetheart. She could light up a black hole. She had an infectious laugh. She loved life,” he said. “She loved life.”

Gantt said Reffner and his sister had been dating for a year. She was elated when she was hired in August as a corrections officer at the county prison.

“All she wanted to do was get a job in law enforcement,” Gantt said.

She had worked the 2 to 10 p.m. shift Tuesday, then went home. She and Reffner typically rose early because they liked to work out together, Gantt said.

“They were fitness freaks,” he said.

The couple had talked about their dispute with Cancilla, Gantt said.

White and Reffner, who worked shifts and often slept during the day, had complained to the apartment manager that Cancilla played loud music.

“They tried to sleep, and he blasted his music,” Gantt said.

When word spread on Wednesday that White had been shot, Gantt called the county prison to see whether his sister was working.

“I actually called the jail and talked to a lieutenant. He said she's scheduled to work but hadn't been there yet,” he said.

Gantt drove to Hempfield Heights.

At the shooting scene, where the bodies of his sister and Reffner still lay, he sobbed, then smashed his fist against his truck. Gantt said he was so angry and distraught, he wanted to storm the apartment and drag Cancilla out.

“There was no way he was coming off that hill alive,” Gantt said.

Paul Peirce and Richard Gazarik are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Peirce at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com. Reach Gazarik at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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