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Friday, August 07, 2009

Police and Tribune-Review stand-off re George Sodini's cell phone call to his mother.

Sodini called mom just before killings
By Jill King Greenwood
Friday, August 7, 2009

The 911 calls kept coming, even as police officers armed with assault rifles stormed the fitness center. Terrified callers, some hiding in lockers and closets, whispered into cell phones that someone was on a shooting rampage inside the gym.

"People were saying they were too scared to come out, and they thought the shots were close and the shooter was coming after them, too," Collier police Chief Thomas Devin said Thursday.
Thirty minutes earlier, George Sodini made his own cell phone call, to his mother.

At 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Sodini, 48, of Scott called to tell his mother he planned to "kill a bunch of people" and he "didn't expect to survive the shooting," investigators said. Sodini walked into a Latin Impact aerobics class at LA Fitness in Great Southern Shopping Center, flipped off the lights and began unloading two 9 mm handguns into a class of about 20 women. He killed three and injured nine before killing himself.

The officers dispatched at 8:16 found a "chaotic and upsetting" scene, Devin said: bodies, blood, bullet holes in walls, shattered mirrors. They and others in the township of about 6,400 people are trying to cope with the horror of what happened at a popular shopping center and rebuild a sense of community in Collier, a focus of national media coverage for several days now.

"People were running everywhere, out every exit, and they were screaming and crying," Devin said. "My officers arrived, and they just see blood everywhere and people running, and they don't know if these people are victims or suspects.

"And is the shooter or shooters still in there? They walk in and they don't hear any gunfire. It's silent. But is that because he's reloading?"

Police don't know whether Sodini's mother, who lives in Baldwin, called anyone to report what her son told her. But she did call him back shortly after 8 p.m., probably about the time he was spraying an exercise room with gunfire, police said.

No one answered the door at his mother's home yesterday. His father, George Sodini of Adams in Butler County, said he did not want to talk about what happened. The family released a statement saying: "Our hearts and prayers are with the victims and their families, and we pray for the full recovery of the survivors."

At the closed fitness center, where Devin said crews inside were "cleaning up, tearing up carpet," people streamed to a memorial outside, adding flowers, balloons, candles, teddy bears and handwritten cards. "Rest in peace," read one. "Everyone has been affected by this tragedy," read another.

David Cherup of Peters, who comes to the gym daily, said he recognized the victims but not Sodini. He hung his own sign: "George, U Coward. R.I.H. (Rest In Hell)."

"This guy didn't deserve all the attention he's getting," Cherup said. "He was a coward, and I hope he's always remembered as a coward."

Investigators know of few people who socialized with Sodini, Devin said. "He really flew under the radar."

LA Fitness officials told Devin they plan to reopen the center. A corporate spokesperson could not be reached, but a message on the club's phone states "it's too early to tell when we will reopen" and invites members to use other locations for no charge.

Still, said Devin, "That LA Fitness will always be remembered as the place where a man opened fire and killed women in an exercise class. You'll never be able to change that."

That night, officers from 26 law enforcement agencies joined 13 EMS and fire agencies at the shopping center. A trail of blood from inside the fitness center led to a nearby hillside, prompting Devin to request a state police helicopter and infrared sensor, fearing a wounded suspect had run from the scene. Police didn't know how many shooters had attacked the gym, or whether any were alive.

The disturbing scene capped a "rough week" for Collier's 14 officers, who will be encouraged to talk with counselors today during a debriefing, Devin said.

On Monday, his officers helped at the funeral of Marine Sgt. Ryan Lane, who was killed in Iraq and whose father is a former chief in nearby Castle Shannon. They attended the funeral of a Collier officer's mother Tuesday, only hours before the shootings.

"That is the worst situation I've been in my entire career," said Devin, a 33-year law enforcement veteran. "I hope I never seen anything like that again in my life."

One immediate concern that night was identifying victims, he said. Keys and wallets and other personal belongings were scattered. Devin thought if he had to, he would gather the keys and later try to identify their owners by scanning Giant Eagle or Shop 'n Save savings cards on the keychains at those stores.

"I'm looking at these women and thinking, this lady is dead, and her parents don't know -- and I can't tell them until I figure out who these women are."

Investigators said Sodini carried four guns and about 150 rounds of ammunition. Devin worries about the survivors.

"The ones who survived will have to live with that night, those images and sounds, for the rest of their lives," he said.

Trib stands by Sodini cell phone story
By The Tribune-Review
Friday, August 7, 2009

Allegheny County police today released a statement denying a report in the Tribune-Review that George Sodini called his mother minutes before the LA Fitness shootings and said he planned to kill people and did not expect to survive.

Three police officials from two agencies confirmed this information to a reporter before the Tribune-Review published the story.

Tribune-Review Editor Frank Craig and Managing Editor Bob Fryer said today that they stand behind the story.

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