Though it seems like we've become numb to new reports of mass shootings, they all tend to have common characteristics, including the roster of victims. Despite descriptions of the disaffected males who seem to commit the shootings however, not all spree killers follow the expected pattern. Female shooters are rarer but there have been enough cases of them to provide a disturbing glimpse into the underlying issues that can lead people to suddenly erupt into unbelievable violence.
Such is the case with Sylvia Wynanda Seegrist.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1960, her life was apparently normal until the age of fifteen when she first began experiencing psychotic symptoms. Though she had been an excelllent student until that time, she changed almost overnight. Along with frightening episodes of violence, she was prone to violent fantasies, threatening, and wild paranoia. Almost from the beginning, she had been warned by a psychiatrist that she had to choose between a lifetime of psychiatric medication or else long-term hospitalization. While she tried to comply with her medication, Seegrist would be hospitalized twelve times for mental illness in the years that followed.
With each year, Seegrist's symptoms became progressively worse, her fantasies became even more violent, and the issues that led to her seeing numerous psychiatrists left her even more disoriented. Her frequent hospitalizations did little to help her since she was usually just turned loose with a prescription for medication that she often failed to follow. By the age of twenty-five, Sylvia Seegrist had already been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and completely incapable of functioning in society on her own. In between hospitalizations, she lived alone as her family was unable to control her often bizarre fantasies and anger episodes. She even once tried to strangle her own mother.
More disturbingly, Seegrist had developed a fascination with paramilitary themes including purchasing a semiautomatic rifle, dressing in camouflage gear, and spouting bizarre pronouncements on various political issues. She became a familiar sight at the Springfield Mall in Springfield, Pennsylvania. Not only did she spend her time loitering in stores there, she often taunted customers. As one store employee would say of her later, "We've had mall security officers take her out [of the mall] and Springfield police take her out [of the mall]." Despite her numerous confrontations with mall security, Sylvia Seegrist rarely stayed away for long. The mall had become the centre of her existence and she also relied on the mall pharmacy to fill her various prescriptions.
Along with spending much of her free time at the mall, Seegrist also belonged to a nearby fitness centre. According to staff, she spent much of her time lifting weights -still dressed in combat fatigues - and sitting in the sauna (fully dressed) while she mumbled incoherently to herself. Fitness centre staff described her as frequently aggressive and argumentative, often getting into verbal confrontations with staff and other clients. She even pretended to stalk enemies while at the centre. When she wasn't at the mall or the fitness centre, she spent time at the Swarthmore Public Library where her behaviour was just as bizarre as it was elsewhere. She often spent much of her time in the library translating books about bombs into Russian using a Russian dictionary. She was also obsessed with the idea of "negative energy" and read everything she could on the subject.
Her disruptive behaviour at the mall became more alarming over the years. In 1984, she burst into a restaurant at the mall screaming, "I'm going to shoot the mother-fucking bastard." Exactly who she meant was never clear but she left before becoming violent. On other occasions, she accused store employees of putting clothes in the windows that were either "too bright" or too outdated. In October, 1985, Seegrist got into a heated argument with a pharmacist because she tried to fill a prescription without her welfare card. That may well have been the final straw for her.
On October 30, 1985, Sylvia Seegrist returned to the pharmacy to pick up another prescription. Dressed in her usual green military fatigues, military boots, and black beret, she went to the fitness centre and quietly worked on the weights. She then proceeded to the library before leaving at 2 PM to return to her apartment. After purchasing napkins and a hand towel at a local store, she then returned to the mall at 3:30 PM. This time however, she had a loaded 22-calibre semiautomatic rifle in the trunk of her car. With the rifle in her hands, she proceed towards the mall.
While still in the parking lot, she spotted a telephone installer leaving the mall to get tools from the truck and opened fire. Miraculously, she missed and he managed to run for cover. The man, who saw the vehicle Seegrist had used, then flattened one of her tires to prevent her from using it to escape. After spotting a woman at an ATM machine, Seegrist opened fire again but the woman escaped without injury (though half-a-dozen bullets struck the area around her). Seegrist then fired at a group of young children standing in front of a restaurant near the ATM. The young children had been shopping with their mothers at the time of the attack.. Two children were seriously injured while a third, two-year-old Recife Cosmen, was killed.
Seegrist then burst into the mall entrance and fired randomly at store employees and customers. She also fired indiscriminately at the storefront windows and entrances of nearby stores. Since it was the day before Halloween, many customers thought it was a prank and were slow to react. Businesses at the mall had hired entertainers in the past to amuse the customers by dressing up as a cowboy and firing a capgun. Nobody realized at first that this woman dressed as a commando was shooting people for real.
As she proceeded through the mall, Seegrist fired two shots at a woman near an ice cream stand and hit her both times in the stomach. After shooting two other women, she spotted an older man standing in front of a cutlery store window. Then man, 67-year-old Earl Trout, was shot in the face and stomach and later died of his wounds. The people in the mall, finally realizing the danger they were in, were seeking shelter wherever possible while Seegrist continued her rampage. Another man, a retired civil servant who had been standing in front of a shoe store with his wife, was too slow to seek shelter and was killed by a bullet to the back of the head. He would be the last fatality of the day.
As Seegrist proceeded back towards the mall entrance, twenty-four-year-old John Laufer approached her in order to put a stop to the shooting. As he would state afterward, he was not certain what had been happening and Seegrist began firing at him as she had at the others. Miraculously, all of the bullets she fired at him missed. Laufer angrily pulled the gun out of her hands saying, "You picked the wrong person to fool with. I'm going to turn you in now." Seegrist seemed stunned at being disarmed and said, "I'm a woman and I have family problems and I have seizures." Laufer then forced her into a nearby store and waited for mall security to make an arrest.
From that point on, Sylvia Seegrist seemed quiet and subdued. When asked by mall security why she had attacked the mall, she replied "My family makes me nervous. I didn't mean to do it. I didn't mean to do it." In total, she had killed two people outright (another would die later) and seriously wounded eight others in a shooting rampage that lasted only four minutes. Except for the actions of John Laufer, that toll would have undoubtedly been much higher.
But the question still remained hat would be done with Sylvia Seegrist.
To be continued