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Monday, March 12, 2012

The Unraveling of John Shick: The Western Psychiatric Shooting Spree

     When writing Crimson Stain, my nonfiction book about a schizophrenic Amish man named Edward Gingerich who brutally beat his wife to death in 1993, I thought a lot about the relationship between serious mental illness and violence. (Gingerich hanged himself in January 2011.) At any given time, about half of the one million schizophrenics in the country are off their medications. Roughly one percent account for 1,000 or so criminal homicides a year. In 2011, of the nearly 1,200 people shot by the police, at least 30 percent of them were mentally ill. The so-called "suicide-by-cop" scenario has become a common type of police involved shooting situation. Mental illness is not only a major heath concern in this country, it has become a serious social problem. Sixty years ago, hopelessly mentally ill people were institutionalized, today they are on the street walking among us. Most are not violent, but many are, and there is no way to identify the dangerous ones before they strike. In that sense, we are all sitting ducks.

John F. Shick

(The material from the following account is based on reportage in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

     In 1999, John Shick entered Carleton College where in three years he'd graduate with a degree in chemistry. As part of a 5-year, dual-degree program, he would continue his education at Columbia University where, after two years, he'd graduate with an engineering degree. Carleton College is a prestigious school in Northfield, Minnesota with an enrollment of 2,000. In 2002, having acquired his degree in chemistry, Shick moved to New York City to attend Columbia. A brilliant student, he graduated from Columbia in June 2004 with his engineering degree. He was obviously a bright young man from a family who could afford to send him to good schools.

     In April 2009, while living in Portland, Oregon, Shick began showing signs of mental illness. That year, the 26-year-old went to the trouble of legally changing his name to Willim Hahnpere Scolskan, then several months later, changed it back to John Shick. Police took him into custody on December 28, 2009 near the Portland International Airport following a 911 call regarding a man acting strangely. When Shick kicked an officer, and tried to hit him with his foot-long flashlight, the cop gave Shick a taste of his taser. The police arrested Shick for assault, then hauled the combative arrestee to a mental ward for evaluation. A few days later, he was back on the street. (I'm guessing, but I imagine some shrink put him back on his pills then showed him the door.) In January 2010, the assault charges against Shick were dismissed.

     Shick moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in August 2011. He took up residence at the Royal York Apartments in the Oakland section of the city which is home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and a vast hospital complex. He enrolled at nearby Duquesne University as a graduate student, and teaching assistant. Within weeks of his move to Pittsburgh, administrators at Duquesne began getting complaints about him from several female graduate students. Shick had been bombarding them with emails and text messages in an apparent effort to connect with them socially. The messages weren't threatening or obscene, just excessive, and off-putting.

     In October 2011, Duquesne officials kicked Shick out of the university, and a month later, officially barred him from the campus following a conference with the director of student conduct. (Shick's mother attended the meeting with  him.) He apologized for his behavior.

     At the Royal York Apartments, Shick's fellow residents, although they didn't know him, considered him an oddball. He walked around glassy-eyed, and didn't speak to people he encountered in the hallway or elevator. A handwritten note taped to his apartment door read, "Now cleaning up vomit from pancreatitis. Please do not disturb." Residents who passed by his door detected a chemical odor emanating from his apartment. When walking the streets of Oakland, Shick, wearing a fanny pack and a backpack, and carrying a couple of shopping bags, often looked nervous and confused. When he did make eye-contact with people, they were often angry looks. (I don't think it's a wild guess to assume he suffered from paranoia.)

     On March 7, 2012, in the lobby of his apartment building, Shick asked the apartment manager to call 911 for him. He then vomited on the floor. A short time later, an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. A few hours after that, he was back in the building.

The Shootings

     At 1:42 in the afternoon of March 8, the day after he had vomited in his apartment building, John Shick, wearing a tan trench coat, white T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes, and a watch on each wrist, walked into the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland. He carried two 9 mm semi-automatic pistols, and in his fanny pack, had extra bullets along with some pills, a roll of Tums, and a pencil and some paper. He began shooting the moment he stepped into the lobby, firing a bullet into the chest of the receptionist, Katheryn F. Leight. The wounded 64-year-old was on the phone talking to her husband. Michael Schaab, a 25-year-old therapist, just happened to be returning from his lunch break. He didn't have a chance. Shick shot him dead on the spot.

     As shot rang out in the lobby, panicked employees scurried about yelling, "Hide! hide!" and "Stay down!" Shick wounded three more people on the first floor, then climbed the stairwell leading to the second-floor parking garage. He tried to exit the building there, but didn't have an access card to open the door. He fired a shot into the window panel, but the glass didn't shatter.

     As Shick re-entered the lobby from the stairs, three police officers from the University of Pittsburgh came through the front door firing their guns. Before being hit, a bullet from Shick's pistol grazed one of the officers. When the gunfire ended, Shick lay dead, face-down on the floor next to Michael Schaab's body. He had shot six people, killing one.

     For several hours, investigators didn't know who the dead man was. He carried no identification, and a NCIC fingerprint search came up negative. Eventually someone identified a post-mortem photograph of the shooter. (At the time of the rampage, Shick's parents were reportedly on a yacht in the Bahamas.) When investigators searched Shick's apartment, they found notes taped to the walls pertaining to people who had slighted and angered him.

     While the investigation is ongoing, investigators have not determined why Shick had targeted employees of the Western Psychiatric facility. He didn't know his victims, and the shootings seemed random. His 9 mm handguns originated from Texas, and one of them had been reported stolen.

     Michael Schaab, the 25-year-old geriatric therapist shot to death in the Western Psychiatric lobby, had earned his BA degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. The Greensburg, Pennsylvania native was planning to get married in March of next year. In October 2010, his 26-year-old sister Nancy had been shot to death at a residence she shared with a man named Jordan Just. The shooting took place over an argument concerning heroin. Just pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and is serving a 6 to 15 year sentence in a central Pennsylvania prison.

     On March 9, the president of the union (SEIU) that represents 200 nurses, clerks, and housekeepers at the 292-bed Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, a part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, called for a "full investigation" of the shooting spree. The head of the union wanted to know why the lobby had not been protected by security personnel.   



  1. Just a correction, Carleton College has an enrollment of 2000, not 4000.

  2. "Residents who passed by his door detected a chemical odor emanating from his apartment"

    What was that? Meth lab?

    1. No, it was coming from cleaning materials he used in his apartment.

  3. I for one would like reassurance that John Shick acted alone. The following 4 women disappeared from near where John Shick was living: Jamie Peterson Pittsburgh, Melissa Atchley Portland, Sarah Fox Columbia U, Lynda Rowell, Northfield, Minn. Also, in Portland Oregon, a block or two from John Shick 's apt, City Reservoir 3 had to be completely empted following an emergency contamination.

    frankly, I am scared that this guy had helpers who are still loose, or left easter eggs in the form of bio-weapons.

    1. How can you connect Jamie Peterson to this guy? She disappeared from her Ross Twnshp home, he was not in the Ross. Jamie's family is still grieving her disappearance and you are trying to connect it to this story? You need to stop.

  4. Lynda Rowell was my mom, and she was found three weeks after her disappearance.