Details Emerge on Western Psych Shooting

Mar 28, 2012

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has released details about the March 8 shooting at UPMC's Western Psychiatric Institute in Oakland, in which gunman John Shick wounded several people and killed one WPI employee. Shick was shot to death by University of Pittsburgh police.

Concerns Raised about Mental Health

Zappala reviewed Shick's tumultuous mental health history, saying his tendency toward odd, violent behavior should have raised red flags at UPMC.

Shick was involuntarily committed to a mental institution in Oregon in early 2010 after assaulting public safety officers and resisting arrest. The police report stated that Shick had been demanding information from passersby and using "grandiose speech."

After his release, Shick traveled to New Mexico, where he bought the two 9mm pistols he used at Western Psych.

He arrived in Pittsburgh seeking medical treatment for "parasitic worms" and other physical problems last July; however, Shick grew angry at UPMC when he wasn't diagnosed the way he wanted. He stopped taking numerous medications in October.

In late 2011, Shick was diagnosed with high-functioning Aspberger's syndrome and schizophrenia, and he grew openly hostile to UPMC in subsequent hospital visits. He even brought a baseball bat to UPMC Shadyside on two days in February.

District Attorney Stephen Zappala wondered why Shick was not involuntarily committed under state "Section 302" after the baseball bat incidents.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done on the 302 issues, and why this person who obviously had mental problems was not either involuntarily committed or otherwise assigned to an institution," said Zappala.

Zappala said it's possible that UPMC could be charged with criminal liability because they didn't warn authorities about the baseball bat incidents.

The Story of the Shooting Unfolds

Zappala said Shick started planning the March 8 shooting about one month prior to the incident. He said a search of the shooter's apartment revealed maps of UPMC facilities. Police also found two bags full of bandages and "molotov cocktails" that Shick had apparently left behind because he couldn't get a taxi to pick him up on the day of the shootings.

"It's our belief that if he had obtained a cab, then he would have brought these devices down there," said Zappala. "Now, what's strange to us is that somebody who's apparently accomplished academically in terms of chemistry would use or would consider using, possibly, such rudimentary incendiary devices as molotov cocktails."

When Shick arrived at Western Psych at 1:42 p.m. that Thursday, he was equipped with 132 rounds of ammunition and two pistols, which he'd concealed under a coat and an umbrella.

Zappala said the gunman began shooting about 30 seconds after he came through the doorway. In the chaos that ensued, it seems as though Shick walked up and down the hallways of the hospital's first floor, firing upon those he came across. He apparently tried to reach the second floor, but couldn't get past a locked door.

During the rampage, Shick wounded several employees and a Pitt policeman. WPIC employee Michael Schaab was killed by a single bullet that passed through his aorta.

Pitt policeman Tom Laskey encountered Shick in a hallway.

"Most of what the defendant says in that hallway is not comprehensible," said Zappala. "However, one thing that Officer Laskey does understand him saying was, 'Shoot me. Just shoot me.'"

Shick complied with police orders to surrender at first, but after a moment he picked up his weapon and began shooting once more. After he paused, he was shot three times by Pitt Police Sergeant Daniel Papale. The wounds were fatal. The whole ordeal lasted only a few minutes.

Zappala said stronger security measures at Western Psych could have at least prevented the wounding of several employees at the receptionist's desk. He added that the eleven mental health hospitals in Allegheny County should work with the County Health Department to develop tighter security strategies.