WEBSTER, N.Y. — An ex-con gunned down two firefighters after luring them to his neighborhood by setting a car and a house ablaze early Monday, then took shots at police and committed suicide while several homes burned.
Authorities used an armored vehicle to help residents flee dozens of homes on the shore of Lake Ontario a day before Christmas. Police restricted access to the neighborhood, and officials said it was not clear whether there were other bodies in the seven houses left to burn.
The sister of the gunman, who lived with him, was unaccounted for. The gunman’s motive was unknown.
The gunman fired at the four firefighters when they arrived shortly after 5:30 a.m. at the blaze in Webster, a suburb of Rochester, town Police Chief Gerald Pickering said. The first police officer who arrived chased the suspect and exchanged gunfire.
He lay in wait outdoors for the firefighters’ arrival, then opened fire probably with a rifle and from atop an earthen berm, Pickering said.
“It does appear it was a trap,” he said.
The gunman, William Spengler, had served more than 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980 at the house next to where Monday’s attack happened, Pickering said at afternoon news conference. Spengler, 62, was paroled in 1998 and had led a quiet life since, authorities said. Convicted felons are not allowed to possess weapons.
Two firefighters, one of whom was also a town police lieutenant, died at the scene, and two others were hospitalized. An off-duty officer who was passing by was also injured.
Another police officer, the one who exchanged gunfire with Spengler, “in all likelihood saved many lives,” Pickering said.
Emergency radio communications capture someone saying he “could see the muzzle flash coming at me” as Spengler carried out his ambush. The audio posted on the website RadioReference.com has someone reporting “firefighters are down” and saying “got to be rifle or shotgun — high powered ... semi or fully auto.”