|Born||Sylvia Wynanda Seegrist
July 31, 1960
Crum Lynne, Pennsylvania
|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. Springfield is a suburb of Philadelphia, located about 10 miles (16 km) west of the city. Seegrist killed three people and wounded seven others before being disarmed by a man 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 with paranoid schizophrenia 10 years earlier. Having been committed and discharged from mental care several times, her case stimulated discussion about the state's authority to commit at-risk people into mental care facilities versus individual rights.
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. Ruth Seegrist testified that her daughter's grandfather (paternal) fondled and exposed himself in front of Sylvia when she was 8 years old. "She was a 'normal' child, but was sexually abused by her grandfather and became a troubled teenager," her mother told a jury. Seegrist said she had not learned about the abuse until Sylvia was 13. When the two discussed it, Seegrist said Sylvia told her, "But momma, you don't know how intimate our relationship was.'
Seegrist was first hospitalized at the age of sixteen, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized a dozen times and upon each discharge psychiatrists diagnosed that she no longer posed a risk to herself or others.
When she was of age, Seegrist attempted to enlist in the Army. At the time of her induction to the army she was assumed by others in her platoon to be a lesbian. Platoon members harassed Seegrist for this, setting her up on a prank date, and making her the butt of many jokes thereafter. 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. Seegrist joined the Army in December 1984 but she was discharged two months later because of her behavioral problems. Seegrist had made herself conspicuous with unusual behavior like sitting fully dressed in green army fatigues at the 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".
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.
On the first of two trips to the Springfield Mall on the day of October 30, 1985 Seegrist shopped for Halloween items at a party store. She then worked out at a fitness club, before returning to the mall for the last time.
Seegrist alighted from her vehicle, a Datsun B-210, retrieved the weapon she had purchased, and then fired at a man approximately 30 yards (27 m) from where she stood. The man was not hit and having seen the vehicle she arrived in, flattened one of the Datsun's tires to prevent an escape in that vehicle. Meanwhile, Seegrist had approached the nearest entrance and fired at, but missed, a woman who was using a nearby ATM. Before entering the mall, she shot and killed 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. Augusto Ferrara was the last person killed in the rampage. John Laufer, a local graduate student, 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 who 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 6, 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, Pennsylvania.
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 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 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.— Ruth Seegrist, Decades After Sylvia Seegrist, Mentally Ill People Are Still Murdering Innocents,
The Philly Post
At the time of the shootings, gun buyers were required to sign a paper application declaring they had no record of being in a mental institution. Sylvia Seegrist lied on the application and purchased a .22 semi-automatic rifle for $107.00. In 1998, the state of Pennsylvania enacted the Pennsylvania Instant Check System or PICS, enabling licensed gun dealers to conduct a background check using a phone.
A reporter from The New York Times sent a letter to Seegrist, asking her to share her thoughts about what happened at the time of the shooting and about her life before she was arrested. Here is an extract from her response:
"As I am safer in prison less threatening or perverted lesser crimes than my family."— Sylvia W. Seegrist, Sylvia Seegrist's letter, nytimes.com
Sylvia Seegrist served her first 2 1⁄2 years of imprisonment at Norristown State Hospital, and then transferred to Muncy State Prison for women. Ruth Seegrist and her ex-husband visited Sylvia regularly at Muncy and she seemed to welcome the visits. But about 1992, Sylvia Seegrist had severe difficulties with her antipsychotic medication. Her mother is not sure what medication she is taking now, but around 1997 Sylvia made a decision to stop any contact with her family members. Visits and phone calls ended, the last letter Ruth Seegrist sent to her daughter was on Nov. 30. Sylvia has not replied.
"It's her illness," said Ruth Seegrist, 67 (2002), "She's schizophrenic and psychotic and becomes extremely paranoid. She dwells on things in the past. Since I was her closest family member, I got blamed: She did what she did because of me!" Seegrist's Muncy Prison counselor meets her at least every two weeks. Her counselor notes that Sylvia takes her meds, spends time at the library, exercises a lot and takes steps to keep herself sharp.
Sylvia Seegrist's precursor to the shooting was due to her fear that her mother was trying hard to have her sent to a mental care facility again. She said that she would "rather die or go to prison than go to a mental hospital." Ruth Seegrist said she had seen A Beautiful Mind, a 2001 biographical drama film about John Nash, a Princeton math professor and Nobel laureate who also was schizophrenic. "I thought it was very well done," Seegrist said. "When a person is so delusional – at first he thought it all was real, but it really was in his mind." Ruth Seegrist said "I really believe she belongs in the forensic unit of a hospital, not in prison," she also shared "They should be incarcerated in the forensic unit of a hospital ... until they get functional and stabilized.
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As I am safer in prison less threatening or perverted lesser crimes than my family
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