By Vicki Smith
An ex-police officer who fired 26 shots into the glass facade of a federal courthouse in West Virginia had a “deep hatred for the federal government,” a recently broken heart and serious health problems before he was shot to death by an officer at the scene, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
Although U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld declined to be more specific about the motive, Ihlenfeld said those three things factored into Thomas J. Piccard’s decision to open fire on the federal building in Wheeling on Oct. 10.
Writings expressing hatred for the government were found in Piccard’s Ohio home, and he was carrying five pages when he was shot, Ihlenfeld said.
He declined to offer any detail about what agency or official the former Wheeling police officer might have been upset with.
“I don’t think he’s entitled to or deserves a platform to express his thoughts or ideas,” the prosecutor said at a news conference in Wheeling.
Nothing in Piccard’s writings suggested he planned to die in the courthouse assault, but it’s impossible to know the shooter’s state of mind, Ihlenfeld said.
Neighbors in the Presidential Estates trailer park just across the Ohio River in Bridgeport, Ohio, said Piccard had told them that he was dying of stomach cancer in the days before the shooting and that he had planned to go to Florida to die.
Witnesses also told investigators that Piccard had lost a dramatic amount of weight and had been vomiting blood.
Ihlenfeld said the autopsy showed Piccard’s stomach was abnormal, but he does not yet have evidence to confirm he had cancer. The medical examiner is expected to provide more details about Piccard’s condition in about a month, he said.
Piccard had his heart broken by a woman he cared about not long before the shooting, the prosecutor said.
Investigators still believe that Piccard, 55, wasn’t targeting any individuals or agencies when he opened fire at the higher part of the glass facade, but surveillance footage shows his aim shifted as two courthouse security officers ran to the windows and looked up.
Shots then started hitting the lower part of the building, Ihlenfeld said, coming within 2 inches of the officers. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, but part of the building was in shadow, so he might have seen them.
“It’s just impossible for us to know what was going on in his mind when those two men walked over to the windows,” he said.
A 911 call went out one minute after Piccard began firing 23 rounds from an assault rifle and three more rounds from a 9 mm handgun.
Officers confronted Piccard within three minutes, and a Wheeling police officer shot Piccard several times. Ihlenfeld said the autopsy report showed gunshot wounds to the arm, heart and lungs.
The Wheeling officer remains on administrative duty as a formality until all findings have been presented to a prosecutor for review, said Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger. He’s also had extensive counseling.
Piccard had left the Wheeling police force in 2000 after serving more than 10 years, and Schwertfeger said he doesn’t believe the officer knew the suspect.
Investigators found that Piccard had legally purchased a tactical assault rifle, two extra clips and six boxes of ammunition from a federally approved weapons dealer in the region before the shooting, and that dealer complied with all relevant laws, Ihlenfeld said.
Piccard bought the Glock handgun two years earlier, and Ihlenfeld said that deal was also a legal transaction.
After the shooting, authorities searched both Piccard’s vehicle and home, evacuating the neighborhood after reading a Latin phrase that loosely translated to “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” on the door. They tore off a back wall of Piccard’s home during the search but found only a World War II souvenir hand grenade.
“It was of no threat whatsoever,” Ihlenfeld said.