William H. Spengler, 62, ambushed Webster, N.Y., firefighters responding to a pre-dawn house fire Monday, killing two and wounding two before taking his own life. (Photo: Monroe County Sheriff's Office)
Victoria Freille, Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle
WEBSTER, NY - Investigators combing the scene Tuesday of a Christmas Eve ambush that killed two firefighters and injured two others made a grisly discovery: another victim.
The body is believed to be that of Cheryl Spengler, 67, of Webster. Police say her brother, William Spengler Jr., set a deadly trap for first responders -- a plan he detailed in a chilling note found at the scene.
The remains found the home were taken to the Medical Examiner's Office for an autopsy. The cause of death was not immediately known, Pickering said.
Armed with a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle - the same weapon used in the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. - a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun and a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and a stockpile of ammunition, Spengler Jr. set a "clear ambush on first responders," Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering said at a news conference Tuesday.
Spengler used that arsenal to follow through on threats he made in a typewritten note discovered not far from where police found his body.
"I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best: killing people," Spengler wrote in the note, which Pickering described as rambling, two to three pages long, and did not address motive. Spengler died Monday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The full note was not released by police.
"Motive is always the burning question," Pickering said at an afternoon news conference. "I'm not sure we'll ever really know what was going through his mind."
Spengler's attack killed volunteer firefighters Mike Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, and severely injured firefighters Joseph Hofstetter, 33, and Theodore Scardino, 48, who are in stable condition at Strong Memorial Hospital. An off-duty Greece, N.Y., police officer, John Ritter, was injured by shrapnel while attempting to protect the fallen firefighters with his car. He was treated and has been released from an area hospital. Pickering described his actions as heroic.
Roger Vercruysse of Rochester, N.Y., said he lived next door to William and Cheryl Spengler, in 2005 and 2006.
He said Spengler was "nice," and was never in trouble while Vercruysse knew him. But, he said, Spengler and his sister clearly had a strained relationship.
"They never got along. He told me he did not care for her. And when I asked him why, he got angry."
He loved his mother, and took her to the store and doctors."
Vercruysse also said Spengler "couldn't stand his sister" and "stayed on one side of the house and she stayed on the other."
Pickering said it was not known which weapon Spengler used to shoot the four firefighters.
"We're assuming it was the rifle, because of the distance." That rifle, he said, was equipped with a flash suppressor, intended to reduce the visibility of a shooter during firing.
Once police arrived near the scene, shortly after the 5:35 a.m. fire call, "it was a combat condition," Pickering said. "They were shooting at muzzle flash."
He also said it was not clear how many bullets were fired during the predawn attack. But what was clear, Pickering said, was that the first responding police officer exchanged gunfire with Spengler and that officer's actions "saved many lives."
A portion of Lake Road on Tuesday afternoon remained closed to traffic, though most residents are being allowed back into their homes, and power has been largely restored.
Officials said they hope to reopen Lake Road to traffic late Tuesday. They also plan to block off the burned homes with a snow fence.
About a dozen investigators Tuesday sifted through the debris of the seven houses destroyed by fire. Firefighters on Tuesday also extinguished hotspots at two homes.
Pickering cautioned that people returning to their homes after being evacuated by SWAT teams Monday may find that their doors were kicked in. Locked homes in the area were searched for the shooter during the chaos.
Monroe County Fire Coordinator Sam DeRosa said it was unclear how long the fire investigation would take.
DeRosa also said officials "are working against the weather" and a pending snowstorm.
Fire investigators are working to determine the cause and origin of the blaze, which they said appeared to be intentionally set by Spengler as a trap, he said.
"There were some brave actions by a lot of people yesterday, both firefighters and individual police officers," said State Police Maj. Mark Koss. "We'll do our best to see what motivated this guy to do the things he did."
About 100 people attended an impromptu memorial vigil Monday evening in Webster, a suburb of Rochester. Dozens of bouquets were left at the fire station, along with a handwritten sign that said, "Thanks for protecting us. RIP."
Authorities said Spengler hadn't done anything to bring himself to their attention since his parole. As a convicted felon, he wasn't allowed to possess weapons. Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley said Spengler led a very quiet life after he got out of prison.
A friend said Spengler hated his sister. Roger Vercruysse lived next door to Spengler and recalled a man who doted on his mother, whose obituary suggested contributions to the West Webster Fire Department.
The West Webster Fire District learned of the fire after a report of a car and house on fire on Lake Road, on a narrow peninsula where Irondequoit Bay meets Lake Ontario, Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn said.
Emergency radio communications capture someone saying he "could see the muzzle flash coming at me" as Spengler carried out his ambush. The audio posted on the website RadioReference.com has someone reporting "firefighters are down" and saying "got to be rifle or shotgun - high powered ... semi or fully auto."
Two of the firefighters arrived on a fire engine and two in their own vehicles, Pickering said. After Spengler fired, one of the wounded men fled, but the other three couldn't because of flying gunfire.
The police officer who exchanged gunfire with Spengler "in all likelihood saved many lives," Pickering said.
A police armored vehicle was used to recover two men, and eventually it removed 33 people from nearby homes, the police chief said. The gunfire initially kept firefighters from battling the blazes.
The dead men were identified as police Lt. Michael Chiapperini, 43, the Webster Police Department's public information officer; and 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka, also a 911 dispatcher.
Pickering described Chiapperini as a "lifetime firefighter" with nearly 20 years in the department, and he called Kaczowka a "tremendous young man."
Kaczowka's brother, reached at the family home Monday night, said he didn't want to talk.
Hofstetter, also a full-timer with the Rochester Fire Department, was hit once in the pelvis, and the bullet lodged in his spine, authorities said. Scardino was hit in the chest and knee.
Cathy Bartlett was at a vigil Monday night with her teenage son, who was good friends with Kaczowka. Bartlett's husband, Mark Bartlett, has been a firefighter there for 25 years but missed the call this morning.
"Thank God my husband slept through the first alarm and didn't get up until the second one went off," she said.
The shooting and fires were in a neighborhood of seasonal and year-round homes set close together across the road from the lakeshore. The area is popular with recreational boaters but is normally quiet this time of year.
"We have very few calls for service in that location," Pickering said. "Webster is a tremendous community. We are a safe community, and to have a tragedy befall us like this is just horrendous."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the State Police and Office of Emergency Management were working with local authorities.
"Volunteer firefighters and police officers were injured and two were taken from us as they once again answered the call of duty," Cuomo said in a statement. "We as the community of New York mourn their loss as now two more families must spend the holidays without their loved ones."
Webster, a middle-class suburb, now is the scene of violence linked to house fires for two Decembers in a row.
Last Dec. 7, authorities say, a 15-year-old boy doused his home with gasoline and set it ablaze, killing his father and two brothers, 16 and 12. His mother and 13-year-old sister escaped with injuries. He is being prosecuted as an adult.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle