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Motive for Hempfield murder-suicide remains a mystery

With his seat belt still buckled, there was no way for 21-year-old Matthew Russo to escape from the small car where his mother would fire five hollow-point bullets into his head, police said.

Russo, a St. Vincent College student and aspiring elementary school teacher, was fatally shot just before 5 p.m. Wednesday in a parked car at a Hempfield Red Lobster restaurant, police said. His mother, Mary Russo, 52, then turned the gun on herself, police said.

Both died of gunshots in the head, and on Friday a homicide-suicide ruling was made, according to the Westmoreland County coroner. Investigators were trying to determine Russo's motivation.

Russo fired seven shots from her five-shot .38-caliber revolver, police said. After she emptied the revolver once, she inserted five more bullets.

One of the shots is presumed to have been a miss. The final, seventh shot killed Mary Russo, police said.

"She reloaded that gun and fired another shot, then killed herself," said Trooper Stephen Limani, a state police spokesman. "If that goes to show her intentions, her mindset, where she was at with her conviction on taking his life. ... I think the fact that she had to reload the gun speaks for itself. She was obviously committed to what she was doing."

Investigators arrived to find Matthew Russo still buckled in the front passenger seat. He had had no opportunity to escape. They recovered five casings near Mary Russo's body in the driver's seat of the Chevrolet Cavalier.

"He didn't see this coming," Limani said. "He never even had his seat belt unbuckled."

The revolver found inside the car was registered to Mary Russo, police said. Hollow-point bullets, like those found spent in the car, are used to cause damage rather than abrasion, Limani said.

Matthew Russo was not expecting to see his mother on Wednesday, but he was happy nonetheless, college friend Kasey Radicic said. The 20-year-old St. Vincent College junior from Uniontown was one of Russo's closest friends.

Russo told his roommate on Wednesday afternoon that his mother was coming from their home of Brentwood in Allegheny County to campus to get him, Radicic said. The visit "confused" Russo, as his mother rarely visited St. Vincent, Radicic said.

"It wasn't something that happened often," Radicic said. "I know that he wouldn't have ever suspected (the killings). He loved his mother so much. And I know she loved him just as much."

Russo had grown up with an absent father, living with his mother and grandmother, Radicic said. After his grandmother's death around Christmas last year, the two became closer as they tried to deal with the grief.

"After that, his mom was really upset," Radicic said. "They were all each other had."

Christine Dumm of Brentwood recalled the close relationship Mary Russo had with her son. Dumm's son was friends with Matthew Russo in elementary school, and the two women forged a relationship as well.

"(Mary Russo) was keenly aware that Matt did not have a dad, and she tried to over-compensate by doing all the things that dads were supposed to do," Dumm wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune-Review. "She was an active, doting mother and she and Matt were extremely close."

Mary Russo's devotion to her son was remarkable, and Dumm said she believes their close relationship may have contributed to the shooting.

"Mary was obsessed with taking care of Matt, so perhaps in her disordered mind, when she decided to 'end it all' she could not bear the thought of leaving him behind," Dumm said. "She probably saw him as a continuation of herself so whatever she decided to do to herself she also felt compelled to do to him."

"She was completely devoted to Matt to the extent that she had no life of her own," Dumm said.

Dumm indicated in her e-mail that Mary Russo's "mental and financial difficulties" could have possibly collided with the thought of leaving her son behind or affecting him emotionally.

"She probably thought Matt could not survive without her, as she was all he had," Dumm said.

St. Vincent College students and faculty members gathered for a memorial service to honor Matthew Russo in the campus chapel on Thursday evening. The family is arranging a private funeral.

State police are continuing to investigate. Anyone with information on the shootings is asked to call 724-832-3288.

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