Details released on Western Psychiatric Institute shooting

By Gretchen Andersen

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said Wednesday that many people could… Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said Wednesday that many people could have been hurt “beyond what we experienced” during the Western Psychiatric shootings on March 8.

But Zappala said that UPMC had several warning signs before the shooting occurred. The alleged shooter, 30-year-old John Shick, menaced UPMC Shadyside employees with a baseball bat on two separate occasions, but the incidents were not reported to police. In February, a doctor across the country, who had been in communication with Shick, alerted UPMC that Shick could pose a threat to the hospital.

The district attorney read email correspondences between the California doctor and an assistant U.S. attorney during Wednesday’s press conference at the Pittsburgh Public Safety Building. He also discussed the events leading up to and during the incident, as well as the response of Pitt police. This was the first time Zappala has spoken about the shooting, which left Shick and a UPMC employee dead and seven others wounded, since the incident happened nearly three weeks ago.

Pitt Police Chief Tim Delaney and city Police Chief Nathan Harper joined Zappala, who outlined the events of the shooting, as well as developments pertaining to Shick’s mental health leading up to March 8.

The warning signs

Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli said that in November 2011, Shick had his first interaction with Western Psychiatric Institute after being banned from Duquesne University, and was reluctant to speak with mental health experts.

At the end of November, the doctor at Western Psychiatric Institute scheduled a follow-up, which Shick attended. The doctor had already made contact with Shick’s mother, who called in and reported her son had been diagnosed with late-onset schizophrenia, and was concerned he had stopped taking his medicine for the past eight to 10 months, Tranquilli said.

Zappala provided a list of Shick’s 43 medications for a variety of illnesses, including antidepressants and drugs to lower cholesterol, among many others.

The doctor at Western Psychiatric Institute encouraged Shick to get on a prescription for schizophrenia, but Shick refused and terminated the appointment. Tranquilli said the doctor reported that Shick had another appointment scheduled for December, which he did not attend.

Tranquilli said Shick’s interactions with UPMC became “more disturbing” at the beginning of this year.

At UPMC Shadyside in February, Shick brought in a baseball bat twice, threatening the staff. The incident was never reported to Pittsburgh Police, Harper said.

Tranquilli said Shick’s primary care physician requested that he be involuntarily committed. However, no one ever followed up on the report.

“In February, this aberrant behavior continued, and this is when Mr. Shick reached out of state to an individual out in California about the treatment he was perceived he was not receiving at UPMC,” Tranquilli said.

Shick contacted five doctors in February, including a California gastroenterologist whom Zappala said they could not identify at this time. Zappala read an email exchange between the California doctor and an assistant U.S. attorney, who said he had warned UPMC about Shick upon being contacted by Shick.

“Cutting to the chase, I find myself in a very unusual predicament. Turns out I suspected John Shick was the shooter at UPMC long before it was announced. That’s because John Shick contacted me two weeks before the shooting, and because I sounded the alarm at UPMC about the risk this man presented,” the email read. “I sit here now struggling with what to do, or whether to contact local authorities in Pittsburgh to ensure that they are aware of the information I forwarded to UPMC well in advance of the attacks.”

Zappala continued reading the email from the California doctor.

“On Feb. 25 I wrote, ‘I think it is wise to contact risk management and to investigate this swiftly and comprehensively, this is out of the ordinary.’ I went on to say I live over 2,000 miles away, but I’m nonetheless quite disturbed to read this. It would seem prudent to act on this expeditiously,” the email read.

Zappala said detectives will head out to California to investigate the doctor’s email correspondences.

Harper said that the police should have been called after Shick went to UPMC Shadyside twice with the baseball bat.

“These are things that we need to look at to see why we weren’t notified, and to take the correct procedures to make sure an event like this doesn’t occur again,” he said.

Shick’s background

City police Commander Thomas Stangrecki said the weapons used in the shooting came from an independent dealer in Albuquerque, N.M., around April 2011. In Pennsylvania and Oregon, under statute 302, one is precluded from obtaining a handgun if they are involuntarily committed under statute 302.

Zappala said the attack was planned, but would not comment further on the evidence that led to that conclusion.

“We believe about a month before the shooting occurred, he may have started planning,” Zappala said. “There’s evidence that this was starting to be thought out.”

Shick came to Pittsburgh in July 2011 and soon received treatment from UPMC for illnesses such as pancreatic problems. Prior to coming to Pittsburgh, Shick lived in Oregon, where he was involuntarily committed on Jan. 5, 2010 for a Dec. 28, 2009 assault on a public officer.

Shick used the name “Willim H. Scolskan” in paperwork filed by Multnomah County in Oregon, when he was arrested for assaulting a public safety officer.

Zappala said he asked the FBI to look into this name or derivatives of this name, but the FBI found no significance.

In Oregon, Zappala said Shick also wrote on his walls in his house, as he did in Pittsburgh. Mental health experts are trying to decipher the writings, but they see no link between the writing and anyone on the first floor of the Western Psychiatric Institute.

“There are writings where he is angry, and angry at UPMC,” Zappala said, though he did not clarify what exactly was written.

The shooting

Zappala referred to a map of Western Psychiatric Institute and photos of the crime scene to outline the events of that day.

“There’s evidence taken from his apartment which indicate that he had a walking map of UPMC facilities, but had also drawn some maps, one of which had a cafeteria identified on it. If this guy was looking to make it into the cafeteria with explosives, then this could have been much, much, much worse,” Zappala said.

About a half-hour before entering UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute, Shick called Yellow Cab and planned to take a taxi to the hospital with two bags filled with Molotov cocktails, triage bandages and incendiary materials that would trigger an explosive, Zappala said.

Yellow Cab could not offer Shick a ride, so he left the bags at his apartment and walked to Western Psychiatric Institute on O’Hara Street with two 9 millimeter handguns.

According to Zappala, the shooting began when Shick entered the building shortly after 1:42 p.m. wearing a trench coat and carrying an umbrella and hat that concealed his two weapons.

Shick first shot UPMC security guard Jeremy Byer in the leg and proceeded to fire at him twice more, but missed. Shick then moved into the first floor lobby where he shot receptionist Kathryn Leight, 65, four times, and unit clerk Marta Drevitch, 56, twice.

Byer, Leight and Drevitch survived the shooting, along with four other victims. UPMC employee Michael Schaab, 25, died after Shick shot him.

Zappala believes Schaab was shot in the lobby because the McDonald’s wrapper that Schaab entered the building with was left there. Zappala said that according to the autopsy, Schaab was shot in the chest. The bullet penetrated Schaab’s pulmonary artery and aorta, causing him to die between one and three minutes after Shick shot him.

Pitt police received a 911 call, and within one minute and 46 seconds, they were on the scene. Zappala regarded that as an “outstanding” response time. He said at one point about 11 Pitt police officers were on the scene.

“Their actions are nothing short of heroic,” Zappala said of the Pitt police officers.

Zappala said Pitt police met Shick in a hallway where Schaab’s body was lying on the ground. Shick took cover behind Keith Taylor, a UPMC employee, whom he had shot in the ankle.

Pitt police officer Tom Lasky asked Shick to get on the ground several times. Shick almost complied, putting his gun on the ground and his hands up, but stayed in a kneeling position, Zappala said.

Zappala said that Lasky told him most of what Shick said was incomprehensible, but remembers him saying “shoot me, just shoot me.” However, the evidence taken from Shick’s apartment is not consistent with suicide-by-cop.

Soon after his interaction with Lasky, Zappala said Shick “came up quickly,” on his knees and began to fire in the hallway. When Shick stopped firing, Pitt police Sgt. Daniel Papale returned fire, fatally shooting Shick three times: center mass, hip and in the head.

A Pitt police officer was shot in the chest, but was wearing a bulletproof vest and sustained no injury. Delaney said all Pitt police officers are back on duty, except Officer Brian Veze, who sustained a knee injury from the events that unfolded during the shooting.