July 31, 1960 |
Crum Lynne, PA
|Criminal penalty||Three consecutive life sentences|
|Date||October 30, 1985
3:45 pm EST
Sylvia Wynanda Seegrist (born July 31, 1960) is an American woman who on October 30, 1985 opened fire at a Springfield, Pennsylvania shopping mall, killing three people and wounding seven others before being disarmed by a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT who was shopping at the mall. The individuals killed included two men and a two-year-old boy. She was 25 years old and had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia 10 years earlier. Having been committed and discharged several times, her case stimulated discussion about the state's authority to commit possibly dangerous people versus individual rights.
Early signs of trouble
Seegrist's story parallels those of other mentally disturbed spree killers in several ways, such as a tendency toward violent thoughts, discussions, and behavior building to a major incident. Seegrist was hospitalized at least twelve times since she was fifteen years old. She spent a good deal of time at the mall she chose for the 1985 spree, harassing customers and making statements about how "good" other spree killings were, such as the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald's massacre. Trying to enlist in the Army in December 1984, she had been discharged from boot camp two months later over her behavioral problems. Seegrist had made herself conspicuous with unusual behavior like sitting fully clothed wearing green army fatigues at both a spa and sauna at a local fitness club. An instructor at the fitness club Seegrist attended said "she hated everyone and would often talk about shooting and killing people".
Rampage at the Springfield Mall
Seegrist's behavior was so disconcerting that clerks at a local K-Mart told her they had no rifles in stock when she tried to purchase one from them. She eventually purchased a Ruger 10/22 at another store, and on October 30, 1985 she went to the mall. The first trip that day was not the rampage, as she shopped for Halloween items at a party store and worked out at the club before returning to the Springfield Mall for the last time.
Seegrist exited her Datsun B-210, retrieved the weapon she had purchased, and then fired at a man approximately 30 yards from where she stood. The man was not hit and having seen the vehicle his would-be killer arrived in, flattened one of the Datsun's tires to prevent an escape in that vehicle. Meanwhile Seegrist had strode toward the nearest entrance and fired at a woman using a nearby ATM, also missing. Before entering the mall, she managed to hit and kill two-year-old Recife Cosmen who was with his parents waiting to eat at a local restaurant.
Once inside, Seegrist fired into some stores and ignored others. Though many customers fled when they heard the gunfire, she came across (Ernest) Earl Trout, who either could not or did not hear it and was simply standing in front of a store where he became one of the three people killed that day. Augustus Ferrara was the last person killed in the rampage. John Laufer, who did not realize Sylvia was firing real bullets, disarmed her as she walked up to him and tried to raise her gun to shoot him. Laufer forced her to a nearby store while he waited for the arrival of mall security. The first guard that responded asked her why she had just done what she did; her reply was "My family makes me nervous".
Prior to the competency hearing Seegrist was transferred to Norristown State Hospital for evaluation. On March 7, 1986 Seegrist was deemed competent to stand trial for the killings. Found guilty, but insane, she was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences (one for each victim she killed) and seven consecutive 10-year terms (one for each victim she wounded). The judge had said that Seegrist "should spend the rest of her life in some form of incarceration". She was sent to the psychiatric specialty hospital Mayview State Hospital for evaluation and was eventually moved to the State Correctional Institution in Muncy.
Seegrist's actions helped spur the state government to form a legislative task force, in order to address better ways to care for the mentally ill in the community. Seegrist's mother also urged legislators to make changes to the state mental health laws. The existence or nature of changes made by the task force is unknown. In response to the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Seegrist's mother Ruth told The Philly Post, "You know, it’s ironic that people who are irrational are expected under the law to get help on their own. There needs to be something in the law that compels a troubled person to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist. In the 1950s, we were institutionalizing people who weren’t mentally ill. You could institutionalize someone who was just unruly. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other.”
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