Police: Hempfield couple ambushed by gunman, shot 11 times
By Paul Peirce and Richard Gazarik
Published: 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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Jailed Hribal ‘fine,’ but family ‘terrible’ as answers in stabbing sought
- Starkey: Fleury’s future at stake
- U.S. Steel presents tuition scholarship money for Catholic education
- Mon Valley communities plan cleanup day activities
- Five years later, Crosby wants another Cup win
- Dravosburg residents try to save PNC Bank from closing
- Carnegie Library of Homestead spotlighted in CNN iReport
- Hempfield Area superintendent, business manager quit
- Pirates conclude wild suspended game with win, drop 2nd of series
- Penguins’ Malkin expects to play in Game 1
- South Fayette parents express dissatisfaction with handling of bullying