WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — An ex-police officer did not seem to be targeting anyone or any particular office when he stood across the street from a federal courthouse and sprayed the glass facade with bullets, even taking the time to wave away bystanders before he opened fire, authorities said.
A clear motive hadn’t emerged for 55-year-old Thomas J. Piccard’s assault Wednesday before he was fatally shot by law enforcement. But on Thursday, U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said the building being the target and other evidence he wouldn’t detail indicates Piccard “had an anti-government bias.”
And acquaintance Mahlon Shields said the thin, sickly looking man who lived across the street had recently told several people in the Presidential Estates trailer park in Bridgeport, Ohio, he was dying of stomach cancer and planned to spend his final days in Florida.
“I don’t think he wanted to hurt people. I think he was afraid to commit suicide,” said Shields, whose community is about 5 miles from the courthouse, just across the Ohio River. “I believe it was suicide by cop.”
Piccard did not appear to target either individuals or a particular office in the federal building just a few blocks from the Wheeling Police Department where he once worked, said Ihlenfeld. Nor was Piccard the target of any active federal investigation.
An autopsy will be done as part of the investigation, FBI special supervisory agent John Hambrick said, but he would not confirm whether Piccard was sick.
When asked if there was anything about Piccard’s behavior to suggest he might have wanted an officer to shoot him, Hambrick said only, “The possibilities, I’m sure, are numerous. I’m not prepared or qualified to answer that question.”
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said police told him Piccard had left the force in 2000 after serving more than 10 years. McKenzie said he didn’t know the circumstances behind Piccard’s departure, but that he didn’t have enough service to qualify for retirement from the force in the city of about 28,000.
Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said Piccard was armed Wednesday with a rifle and a handgun, but authorities refused to identify the weapons by model or caliber. Hambrick said only that the rifle “easily could be characterized as an assault rifle.”
Nor would they say how much ammunition Piccard carried as he stood in a parking lot across Chapline Street and fired as many as two dozen shots, reloading at least once.
Schwertfeger did not say whether Piccard used both weapons during the assault or identify which law enforcement officer at the scene returned fatal fire. But he said that officer is being closely looked after, and that all of those involved in the shooting will get counseling.
Hambrick said officials convened the Thursday afternoon news conference mainly to assure the public there is no evidence of a conspiracy and no continuing threat to the community.
“We feel it’s a reasonable conclusion he acted alone,” Hambrick said.
Hambrick declined to answer dozens of questions from reporters and suggested there may not be much more information to share until sometime next week.
“We owe it to the investigation to do it in a sterile environment,” he said. “We’re not going to put evidence out there piecemeal.”
The courthouse was technically open Thursday, but security was tight and traffic was light. Workers moved extra metal detectors in and one judge held court, but U.S. marshals would let no one beyond the lobby without an appointment.
Ihlenfeld said he hopes the building will be operating as usual by sometime next week.
Ihlenfeld said he knew Piccard from 1997 until the officer left the force. He said he had no reason to believe his office was targeted. About 40 percent of his staff has been furloughed under the partial government shutdown, so many were not working when the glass began to shatter.
“There was nothing about my relation with him or anything that I observed in dealing with him … to cause me to think anything like this would happen.”
Associated Press writer John Raby in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.