MANCHESTER, Conn. - A warehouse driver who a union official said was caught on video stealing beer from the distributorship where he worked went on a shooting rampage there Tuesday, killing eight people and wounding two before committing suicide.
Omar Thornton, 34, pulled a handgun after a meeting in which he had been offered the chance to quit or be fired, Manchester Police Chief Marc Montminy said. Among those killed was Thornton’s union representative at the meeting.
The gunman, who was black, had complained of racial harassment and said he found a picture of a noose and a racial epithet written on a bathroom wall, the mother of his girlfriend said.
Her daughter told her that Thornton’s supervisors told him they would talk to his co-workers.
Brett Hollander, whose family owns the distributorship, said, “I can assure you there has never been any racial discrimination at our company.” And a union official said Thornton had not filed a complaint of racism with the union or any government agency.
Thornton had been caught on videotape stealing beer, Teamsters official Christopher Roos said.
“It’s got nothing to do with race,” Roos said. “This is a disgruntled employee who shot a bunch of people.” Thornton’s girlfriend had been with him the night before the rampage and had no indication he was planning it, said her mother, Joanne Hannah.
On Tuesday morning, about 50 to 70 people were in the warehouse about 10 miles east of Hartford during a shift change when the gunman opened fire around 7 a.m., Hollander said.
Adding to the chaos at the warehouse was a fire, which was put out. Montminy said he didn’t know how the fire started, but didn’t think it was set.
The shooting was over in a matter of minutes, Montminy said. The victims were found all over the complex, and authorities don’t know if Thornton fired randomly or targeted specific co-workers, Montminy said.
After shooting his co-workers, Thornton called his mother, Hannah said.
“He wanted to say goodbye and that he loved everybody,” Hannah said.
Thornton was alive when police got to the scene but killed himself before officers got to him, Montminy said. A police sharpshooter had approval to fire on Thornton when he killed himself, an official with knowledge of the scene said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it.
Hannah said her daughter, Kristi, had dated Thornton for the past eight years. Kristi Hannah did not return calls for comment. “Everybody’s got a breaking point,” Joanne Hannah said.
Hannah described Thornton as an easygoing guy who liked to play sports and video games. She said he had a pistol permit and had planned to teach her daughter how to use a gun.
Hollander’s cousin, Steve, who’s a vice president at the company, was shot in the arm and the face. Hollander said he thought his cousin would be OK. Steve Hollander would not comment when reached on his cell phone.
Police declined to release the names of those killed.
Among the dead was Bryan Cirigliano, 51, of Newington, president of Teamsters 1035, according to the union. He had been Thornton’s representative at Tuesday’s disciplinary hearing, the union said.
Bill Ackerman, a 51-year-old warehouseman, also was killed, said his girlfriend, Stephanie Laurin.
“I was like, ’Where’s Billy, where’s Billy?’ and they said they hadn’t seen him. And then one of his co-workers told me ... that he saw the shooter go to where Billy’s room is that he works in,” she said. “I was just praying to God that he was OK.” Ackerman, who enjoyed playing golf and rooting for the Boston Red Sox, had worked for the company for about 20 years, she said.
The Hartford Courant identified another victim as Victor James, 59, of Windsor. Two victims were being treated at Hartford Hospital.
The rampage was the nation’s deadliest since 13 people were fatally shot at Fort Hood, Texas, in November. A military psychiatrist is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in that case.
In Connecticut, a state lottery worker gunned down four supervisors in 1998 before committing suicide, and six people were killed in 1974 in botched robbery at a bakery in New Britain. Two men were convicted of that crime.
On Tuesday, a few dozen relatives and friends of the victims gathered a few miles away at Manchester High School. Outside, people talked, hugged and cried. Others talked on cell phones.
Police officers from numerous agencies and police and fire vehicles surrounded the warehouse, on a tree-lined road in an industrial park just west of a shopping mall.
Thornton listed Hoffman’s Gun Center & Indoor Range in Newington as among his interests on his Facebook page. A company official declined to comment.
Thornton filed for bankruptcy protection a decade ago. His Chapter 7 petition in 2000 listed $4,850 in assets, including a 1994 Chrysler Concorde, and more than $15,000 in liabilities — primarily debt on credit card and student loan payments. His debts were discharged in March 2001 and the case was closed the following month.
The Hollander family is widely respected in Manchester, said state Rep. Ryan Barry, a lifelong resident. He said the family-owned Hartford Distributors sponsors local sports teams and the family is civic-minded.
“Everybody knows the Hollanders as good, generous, upstanding people,” Barry said. “They’re embedded in the community. Everyone knows Hartford Distributors. They treat their employees very well and they’re part of the fabric of the town.” In a statement, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell offered condolences to the victims’ families and co-workers.
“We are all left asking the same questions: How could someone do this? Why did they do this?” she said.