Girlfriend: Conn. gunman ‘dazed’ before rampage

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 5, 2010

ENFIELD, Conn. (AP) — As Omar Thornton prepared to head off to work at a beer distributorship Tuesday morning, his girlfriend sensed something was wrong.

‘‘He just kept having this dazed, confused look on his face, and I never saw him like that before,’’ Kristi Hannah, his girlfriend of eight years, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. ‘‘I could tell something was bothering him. I asked him what was wrong a bunch of times and he said nothing was wrong with him. … That’s why he gave me a long hug and kiss before he left.’’

Thornton, 34, said he would call his girlfriend in a little while.

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When he got to Hartford Distributors Inc., a family-owned business in the ethnically diverse Hartford suburb of Manchester, Thornton was confronted with videotaped evidence that he had been stealing beer. Company officials then forced him to resign. He responded by going on a rampage, killing eight co-workers, wounding two others and then killing himself.

Hannah said Thornton, who is black, had complained of racial harassment to her months ago and had shared with her evidence of it: photos of racist graffiti and a surreptitiously monitored conversation allegedly involving company managers.

She said Thornton called his union representative about the problems, but the official did not return his calls.

Union and company officials tell a different story. They say Thornton never complained of harassment and say there have never been reports of racial discrimination at the company.

A union official described Thornton as a dissatisfied worker whose first targets were the three people in his disciplinary meeting: Steve Hollander, 50, a member of the family that owns the company, who was shot twice but survived; Bryan Cirigliano, 51, president of Teamsters 1035 and Thornton’s representative at the hearing; and Louis Felder, 50, who news reports described as the company’s operations director.

Other victims were Doug Scruton, 56; Bill Ackerman, 51; Francis Fazio Jr., 57; Edwin Kennison, 49; Craig Pepin, 60; and Victor James, 60. Jerome Rosenstein, 77, was wounded and was in serious condition Wednesday at Hartford Hospital.

What ended as a nightmare had begun as a dream job. Hannah said Thornton had been trying for about 18 months to land the job, and she recalled how excited Thornton was when he was hired about two years ago.

‘‘He had this huge smile on his face,’’ she said.

The only complaint Thornton ever made to the union was when he asked to be promoted from an entry-level job to a driver, said Gregg Adler, a union lawyer. The union explained to him that because of seniority rules, he would have to wait his turn until a job opened up. Eventually it did, and he was promoted about a year ago, Adler said.

Hannah said he loved being a driver. But there were problems.

She said he showed her photos he had taken with his cell phone. One was a drawing on a bathroom wall of a stick figure with a noose around the neck and a racial slur, she told the AP. Another scrawl said the writer hated black people and had Thornton’s name on it, she said.

One day, Hannah said, he called her from a bathroom stall and held up his phone. She said she could hear a company official, apparently unaware Thornton was in a stall, tell someone else that the company was going to ‘‘get rid of this dumb n—–.’’

Thornton also complained that colleagues had made racial slurs to him, she said. Co-workers would pack his truck wrong, causing him to work later, she said.

‘‘He was being racially profiled and no one would listen to him,’’ Hannah said. ‘‘I know what pushed him over the edge was all the racial stuff that was happening at work. I could hear in his voice it hurt him really bad. If they just listened to him they probably could have solved it.’’

Thornton told his family he was the only black employee at the company, his uncle Wilbert Holliday said. Union secretary-treasurer Chris Roos said there are other African-American employees, although a 911 tape released by police Wednesday includes a clip of a woman describing him as the ‘‘the only black guy that works here, almost.’’

Manchester police Lt. Christopher Davis said Wednesday that the company had hired a private investigator to follow Thornton outside of work for a few weeks after becoming suspicious that he was stealing. The amount of beer Thornton took wasn’t clear.

On Tuesday, Thornton came prepared.

He carried two 9 mm handguns inside his lunch box and left a shotgun in his car, police said. All the weapons were registered, Davis said.

At the disciplinary hearing, Thornton watched video that showed him stealing beer and then resigned after being asked whether he wanted to quit or be fired. He then asked for a drink of water and went to a kitchen where his lunch box was, Davis said. He took out his guns, walked out into the hall and began shooting immediately, Davis said.

It’s not clear whether every victim was targeted or whether some were shot randomly, Davis said. The victims died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

After shooting the people at the meeting, Thornton left the office area and went into a large section of the warehouse where more victims were found, Davis said. He chased one or more of them outside into a parking lot, shot a locked glass door to get back into the building and continued shooting.

One man who was fatally wounded tried to evade Thornton on a forklift, which crashed into an electrical conduit and started a small fire, Davis said.

Thornton also passed by at least two people and did not shoot them, Davis said, including one woman in a wheelchair.

Finally, Thornton called his mother to say goodbye, Holliday said.

‘‘I shot the racists that was bothering me,’’ he told his mother, according to his uncle.

Police found Thornton dead in an office.

Brett Hollander, Steve Hollander’s cousin who also works at Hartford Distributors, denied any accusations of racism.

‘‘I can assure you there has never been any racial discrimination at our company,’’ he told the AP.

Friends and family of those who died said they couldn’t imagine their loved ones discriminating against Thornton.

One driver at the company who was killed, Kennison, had mentioned Thornton before but never in a derogatory way, said Mark McCorrison, a close friend. Kennison was not the type to make bigoted remarks, he said.

‘‘I can tell you right now: Eddie is not that person,’’ McCorrison said.

Pepin, also a driver, was never angry, let alone someone who showed any hint of racism or bigotry, said a neighbor who knew him for 25 years.

‘‘Craig, who was active as a coach in town with all kids — all races of kids — for years, he didn’t care. He just worked with the kids,’’ Ted Jenny said. ‘‘There was no way Craig Pepin was racist.’’

Steve Hollander told the AP on Tuesday that the people Thornton targeted appeared to be ‘‘absolutely random.’’

‘‘He killed so many good people today for absolutely no reason at all. People who’ve never said an unkind word to him,’’ he said. ‘‘He was just shooting at anyone that was near him and just cruelty beyond cruelty.’’

Michelle T. Johnson, a diversity consultant and former employment lawyer, said workers who face discrimination are often reluctant to file a formal complaint, even if the misconduct is serious.

‘‘Once a person of color raises an issue of discrimination, the reaction they can get just makes it very stressful,’’ she said.

Many companies have an internal process that allows workers to go to a supervisor, human resources office or union official to complain about discrimination. But that can be complicated if a supervisor is the one making the comments.

Employees can also file a charge of discrimination with a state agency or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hartford Distributors has never had any complaints filed against it, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities said.

The company was meeting privately with employees on Wednesday, Brett Hollander said. He said other beer distributors had offered to make deliveries for Hartford Distributors while the warehouse is shut down.

A funeral for Felder, an Orthodox Jew, was held Wednesday afternoon in Stamford, and a Mass to remember all the victims was planned for Wednesday evening at St. Margaret Mary Church in South Windsor.