10/09/2007

Wis. shooter's motives remain unclear

By Tom Held
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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CRANDON, Wis. A minister delivered a grief-stricken apology from a killer's parents Monday, and a wish for answers that was shared throughout this northern Wisconsin town, where a day earlier, an off-duty law enforcement officer killed six people in a barrage of 30 rounds from a semiautomatic rifle.

The gunman, Forest County Sheriff's Deputy Tyler Peterson, 20, died about 12 hours after the massacre during an encounter with members of the tactical unit on which he served. Peterson and the officers exchanged gunfire on property in the Town of Argonne, where the fugitive had gone to seek refuge with family friends.

At an early afternoon news conference, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen declined to say whether Peterson was killed by shots from the tactical squad officers or if he took his own life. An autopsy was performed Monday. State authorities took over the investigation, given Peterson's ties to local law enforcement agencies. Those officials did not speculate on a motive for the shootings.

Autopsies also were being done Monday on Peterson's six victims: Jordanne Murray, 18; Katrina McCorkle, 18; Leanna Thomas, 18; Bradley Schultz, 20; Aaron Smith, 20 or 21; and Lindsey Stahl, 14.

Another victim, Charlie Nietzel, 21, who sustained two gunshot wounds, remained in serious condition late Monday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield.

Peterson's parents apologized repeatedly to the victims and their families in a statement read by the Rev. Bill Farr, pastor of Praise Chapel Community Church.

"We also feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame for the horrible acts Tyler committed," Farr read.

They could offer no answer as to why the young man would take such a violent turn.

"There is nothing that happened before or after yesterday's events that has given any insight into why," Farr read. "Like those close to Tyler, we are in shock and disbelief that he would do such terrible things. This was not the Tyler we knew and loved."

Standing in the door of his home Monday morning, his eyes bleary from no sleep, Steven Laurel, Peterson's father, said, "I'm afraid I'd have nothing good to say about him after what he did." He said he was horrified by what his son had done.

Former schoolmates described Peterson as someone who had, in high school, hoped to be popular, but never quite made it.

"He didn't have a lot of friends because he was arrogant," Michael Zold, 20, said. "He was always very stuck up, like he always had an attitude, 'I have money, I'm better than everybody else.' "

Zold added, "After he became an officer, it was a power trip to him."

Steven Bocek, whose nephew, Bradley Schultz, was one of the victims, said Peterson had gotten his police job so young, in part, because he was known in Crandon.

"The bottom line is he should have never been a police officer," Bocek said. "They have a bunch of young people there who shouldn't be there. It's mostly family members."

While Peterson's motives remain a mystery, much attention was focused on his relationship with one of his victims: Murray, his former high school sweetheart.

Crandon Police Chief John Dennee said the two dated for several years, broke up some time ago and continued "on again, off again."

Peterson, who was also a part-time Crandon police officer, shot Murray and the group of friends during a gathering in her home just off the town's main street. They had been watching movies and eating pizza. All were students or graduates of Crandon High School, and it was homecoming weekend in the town of 2,000.

According to Van Hollen, Peterson went to Murray's apartment late in the night, then left after an argument. He went to his pickup truck and returned with a gun, forced his way in and opened fire about 2:47 a.m. Sunday.

Authorities identified the rifle as an AR-15, the same type used by the Crandon Police Department tactical unit. Neither Van Hollen nor others would confirm whether the gun Peterson used had been issued to him by the police or sheriff's departments. But friends who saw Peterson after the shooting said it was the same gun.

As he left the apartment, Peterson fired numerous shots at a squad car driven by a fellow Crandon officer, Greg Carter, who was responding to a call of shots fired. Carter was injured by flying glass as at least one bullet hit his windshield.

Authorities again had contact with Peterson later Sunday morning, after he fled to a friend's house eight miles to the north in Argonne. Matt Carothers said Monday that Peterson came to his cabin. Carothers would not say what Peterson said about the shootings, but he said that he and others who assembled in the cabin after Peterson arrived did not fear for their lives.

"It was not a hostage situation," said Carothers, who said Peterson spent "hours" at the cabin.

Dennee and Forest County District Attorney Leon Stenz spoke with Peterson by phone, trying to get the deputy to surrender.

"I was hopeful that we could resolve something," Stenz said. "We had some discussions about him turning himself in and the procedure how that would be accomplished. I anticipated that I would talk to him again, but unfortunately I didn't."

Dennee said Peterson had passed all of the department's background checks and screening processes. He did not, however, undergo a psychological exam before being hired.

The Crandon department does not require the exam, although pre-employment psychological testing has been the national standard in law enforcement for some 30 years, police practices expert Melvin Tucker said Monday.

Many departments screen officers a second time if they are assigned to a special unit. Peterson was assigned to such a unit, the Forest County Emergency Response Team.

Small departments are less likely to do psychological testing than larger ones, said Tucker, a former FBI agent who has served as a police chief in departments in Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida.

Dennee addressed the screening question only briefly during the news conference.

"I think it's important that you realize, we had no indications, obviously, that anything like this would ever occur," he said. "This occurred as a shock to us, just as much as it did to anyone else."

The Chicago Tribune and New York Times contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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