Howard Unruh Arrest - 1974-09-07. Credit: Camden Courier-Post

By Katherine Ramsland

A Preconceived Plan

It seemed a petty grievance, but it was also a turning point. As soon as he saw the missing gate, just installed that day, he knew that his life would change. He had to take action now, no matter what the cost. He’d been plotting revenge for at least two years and now it was time to act on his “preconceived plan.”

Dressing up in a brown tropical-worsted suit, white shirt, and striped bow tie, the slender six-foot recluse picked up his 9-mm. German Luger and went outside. It was Tuesday, September 6, around 9:20 a.m. His mother had just left, so she was out of the way. He could have taken any number of guns from his collection, but he favored the Luger. Just in case, he also grabbed a six-inch knife and a tear gas pen with six shells.

Vaulting over a fence, he cut through some back streets and then stepped out into the road. A map drawn for the Philadelphia Inquirer that evening, which identified the shooter as “the crazed man” and “the maniac,” marks where this otherwise quiet World War II veteran went. (The exact sequence of the events that day differs from one newspaper to the next, but they all end up with the same result.)

The lean and quiet man was about to make history. He would become America’s first single-episode mass murderer.

In 1949, the Cramer Hill area of Camden, N.J. was generally quiet. But that day, for a mere twelve minutes, the shooter had made himself heard. For too long, he believed, people had been talking about him behind his back. It was time for revenge. No one was going to treat him like this! He put his lessons from the war to good use: he approached the target area from a route that no one would expect.

At the corner of Harrison and 32nd St. sat a bread delivery truck. Two kids played nearby. The driver appeared to be sorting through some papers. He would be the first. Shoving the Luger through the door, the shooter pulled the trigger. But the bread man was quick.

“He missed me by inches,” the unidentified driver later told reporter Roxy Di Marco. “I was seated in my bread truck going over my records and he walked up and shoved a pistol through the door at me. I thought it was a holdup. I tumbled into the back of my truck among the breadboxes. He fired one shot and, thank God, it missed me.”

The bread man saw the two children in the road, so he grabbed them and hid them in the truck. He then drove down the road to warn others, but it was too late.

The shooter walked along 32nd St. back toward the building where he lived on the second floor. He planned on making some stops before reaching home. He had enemies and he knew where they were. Entering a shoe repair shop, he aimed the gun at John Pilarchik, 27, the man inside bent over a child’s shoe. The shooter walked within a yard of him and fired twice. A little boy ran for cover behind the counter, but the shooter ignored him. He now had his first kill of the day, with one bullet in the man’s stomach and another in his head. Unlike the bread man, the shoemaker had been on his list. The barber was next.


People who heard the shots later admitted they had dismissed them as cars backfiring or someone shooting at the rats that ran along the Delaware Riverfront. No one could quite understand why people were screaming.

Next door to the shoe shop was Clark Hoovers barbershop. When the shooter entered, Hoover, 33, was cutting the blond hair of a six-year-old boy sitting on a white carousel horse. His mother, Catherine Smith, sat nearby, watching. The shooter took aim and said, I’ve got something for you, Clarkie. The barber tried to shield the boy, but he was too slow. The first bullet hit the boy in the head from a short distance and the second one killed Hoover. Both dropped to the floor. The shooter left the woman alone to cry out for help. Two other children who had been in the shop went screaming into the street, but the shooter was oblivious, even when the shrieking mother carried out her dead child, begging for someone to help.

Passing a group of kids who raced for cover, the shooter shot at a boy watching him from a window, but missed. It didn’t matter. They were incidental targets. He headed toward the tavern, but the door was locked so he shot two bullets in it. Inside, customers cowered behind the bar. The tavern owner, Frank Engel, rushed up the steps to retrieve his .38 caliber pistol.

Next, the shooter tried to get into a locked restaurant — without success. He reloaded and then turned his attention to his most hated targets, the Cohen’s.

Their drugstore was on the corner. The Cohen’s were his immediate neighbors, and they complained that he had used their gate to get to the door of his apartment. They were among those who had slandered him during the past two years.

As he was about to enter the drugstore, a man he knew well, an insurance agent named James Hutton, came out the door. He greeted the shooter, who politely said, “Excuse me, sir.” Hutton did not move, so he received his own fatal bullet. He had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The shooter went into the pharmacy and saw Maurice Cohen and his wife Rose run up the steps to their apartment. Something had alerted them, but that would not save them. The shooter followed, watching Rose try to hide in a bedroom closet and firing three times through the door. He then opened it and shot her in the head. Then he walked through the apartment until he found Maurice’s elderly mother, 63, on the telephone. She was calling the police. He killed her with two shots where she stood, but had no time to watch her slump to the bed, because Maurice had jumped out a window onto a porch roof.

The shooter leaned out and hit him with a bullet, wounding him badly enough to send him off the roof to the sidewalk below. He had no time to recover because the shooter had jumped down the steps and come out to the street, where he discharged another shot. Maurice died on the street, but he had succeeded at saving one person, his 12-year-old son, hidden in a closet upstairs. The shooter reloaded.

Nearby, Mrs. Harrie and her 16-year-old son, Armond, were hanging clothing onto a clothesline. Mrs. Harrie went inside and the shooter entered her house. Her son ran in and said that the man shot at them five times, wounding them both in an arm. Then he tried smacking Armond with the butt of the empty pistol, but before anyone could stop him, he left. He now had shot nine people, killing seven.

Circling back, he walked down 32nd St. along the side of the pharmacy and encountered a motorist, Alvin Day, who had slowed down near the body of James Hutton, the dead insurance agent. That was his mistake. The shooter leaned into his car and killed him, leaving the car to stall and roll into the curb.

Then the shooter went over to another car that was stopped at a light across the street. He shot through the windshield, killing the female driver and her mother, and wounding a twelve-year-old boy in the back seat with a bullet through his neck. Next was a car behind this one (according to the map, but not included in other accounts) where he shot a young male, Charlie Peterson, wounding him. He shot into several other cars, too. Peterson staggered from his car and entered the tavern so someone could get him to a hospital. The man on the rampage was then busy firing at a chain grocery store.

Frank Engel leaned out a window and shot at the retreating figure with his own pistol. He thought he had hit the maniac in the thigh, because he paused, but it had not slowed him down. Engle could have fired again and killed him, but he refrained. Later he would say, “I could have put a half dozen shots into him. I don’t know why I didn’t do it. I wish I had. “

Apparently, the shooter wasn’t yet finished. He went into the tailors shop. Zegrino, too, was on his list. By that time, a man who had been in line behind cars into which the maniac had fired had driven to the nearest fire station on 27th Street, six blocks away, to raise an alarm. But there would be two more fatalities.

The tailors wife, Helga, who had been married to him for only three weeks, got on her knees and begged, “Oh, my God, don’t!” Then she screamed so loudly that people in buildings across the street could hear her. Without mercy, the shooter pointed his gun and shot her. Then he left and went strolling down the street.

Tommy Hamilton, aged two, happened to look out his front window, so the shooter aimed and fired right through the glass, taking his last victim. (One Philadelphia Inquirer account has him going into the Hamilton apartment, herding the family into the kitchen, and then killing Tommy. In the New York Times, Meyer Berger has him killing Tommy from outside, but entering the apartment of the Harrie family and shooting at them. Other sources have Mrs. Harrie and her son outside, but the Harrie boy claimed later to reporters that they were both inside when shot. The killer says he shot someone through a window from outside. The likely tale is that he shot the Harries inside but the Hamilton boy from outside.)

He attempted once more to get into a restaurant that stood at the end of River Road near Bergen St. but failed, so as sirens began to wail from a distance, he went around to the back and finally came home to his apartment. He’d been out for less than 15 minutes, but was running low on ammunition. “I ran out of bullets,” he later said, “so I went home.”

In his wake, twelve people were dead, five men, five women and two small children — and four were badly wounded a man, a woman, and two teenagers. One of these would later die, bringing the toll to thirteen. Had he hit everyone at whom he took a shot, as Time-Life’s Mass Murderers says, the number of deaths would have been twenty-six.

The police were scrambling to go after this man, having run into or been called to the massacre, but the shooter reached his apartment first. He barricaded the door and reloaded. One officer found a boy running in the street, who turned out to be Charles Cohen, the boy who had been spared by being shoved into the closet in his home. He had nearly suffocated, he said, and had finally kicked open the door to get out. He remembered watching his grandmother fall just as the door closed, and he had heard screams and shooting. He was taken to the home of a relative.

People had now identified the rampaging shooter to the first arriving officers as Howard Unruh, a 28-year-old recluse and religious nut. All available police reserves were dispatched. None had ever dealt with such an incident before. Ironically, Unruh’s name in German meant unrest.


A cordon of between 50 and 60 police officers surrounded the two-story gray stucco building that housed Unruh’s apartment at 3202 River Road, behind and next to the Cohen’s pharmacy and residence. Unruh was barricaded inside, and he shot at them from a window. From the number of victims, the police believed they were dealing with more than one killer. They armed themselves with rifles and machine guns. For a time, the road was a state of confusion, with people in the milling crowd getting in the line of fire.

The police shot into the apartment in what reporters called a rain of gunfire intended to drive the shooter out or to kill him. Pedestrians formed a ring around the area and within half an hour, more than 1,000 people were watching. Several marksmen on the roof of a nearby shed tried to get a clear shot into the room from which the suspect himself was shooting. One officer shouted that he had hit the man.

Meanwhile, the bodies of the dead and the wounded were removed to Cooper Hospital, and some officers were collecting stories from eyewitnesses. One woman suffering from shock and a man who had injured his leg trying to escape were also rushed to the hospital.

Freda Unruh, the shooters mother, had returned home around this time, just after 10 A.M. When she saw the police barricade and heard spectators talking excitedly about what had occurred, she knew it was about her son, and she wandered off in a daze. She finally made her way (or was taken) to the home of her sister, five blocks away, who found a doctor to treat her and who kept the breaking details of the story from her. It was the sisters opinion that this had all been caused by terrible experiences that Howard had suffered during his three-years in the war.

Reporters were aware of the events, and Philip W. Buxton, an assistant city editor of the Camden Evening Courier looked up Unruh’s phone number, Camden 4-2490W, and called the home. To his surprise, Unruh answered with a calm voice.

“Is this Howard Unruh?” Buxton asked.

“Yes, this is Howard. What’s the last name of the party you want?”

“Unruh,” the editor told him.

“Who are you?” Unruh demanded to know. “What do you want?”

Buxton could hear the sound of bullets coming through the window, breaking glass. He identified himself as a friend and then asked, “What are they doing to you?”

“They haven’t done anything to me yet,” said Unruh, “but I’m doing plenty to them.”

“How many have you killed?”

“I don’t know yet. I haven’t counted them. But it looks like a pretty good score.”

The editor then wanted to know why he was killing people.

I don’t know. I cant answer that yet. I’m too busy. Ill have to talk to you later. A couple of friends are coming to get me. He slammed down the phone.

Who those friends might be was never clarified.

To get him to leave the apartment, the detectives on the roof got close enough to lob a canister of tear gas through the broken bedroom window. It proved to be a dud, which alerted Unruh to their strategy, so he went into another room. As he returned, they tossed in a second canister and the place slowly filled with stinging gas. It took another five minutes, but finally Unruh moved aside the white curtain upstairs, looked out and said, “Okay, I give up. I’m coming down.”

“Where’s the gun?” a sergeant yelled up at him.

“Its on my desk, up here in the room. I’m coming down.”

He came out the door, unarmed, with three dozen guns trained on him, and surrendered without a word to motorcycle officer Charles Hance. Forty-five minutes after he had taken his first shot, Unruh was ushered through the angry crowd, who swore at him and called for a lynching, and into a police car and driven away.

One observer murmured, You gotta watch them quiet ones.

Three coroners came to oversee the autopsies. The wounded were tended, but the 12-year-old boy who had been sitting in the backseat of a car was in critical condition. The bullet had gone through his neck to the base of his brain. The prognosis was poor.

The police did not comprehend the killers motives. They had never dealt with such an incident before. “What’s the matter with you?” one officer asked Unruh. “Are you a psycho?”

“I’m no psycho,” Unruh insisted. “I have a good mind.”

Whether or not he was right remained to be seen.


At City Hall, a gaunt Unruh was taken into a private room and questioned for hours by detectives and those who would be involved in prosecuting him. At all times, he seemed calm, as Berger reported for The New York Times. Only occasionally excessive brightness of his dark eyes indicated that he was anything other than normal.

To Camden County Prosecutor Mitchell Cohen he admitted that before going to sleep the previous night he had made up his mind to go on this rampage. He was willing to offer a shot-by-shot account. “I shot them in the chest first,” he explained, “and then I aimed for the head.” Although some people were pre-planned targets, a few just got in the way. “About the insurance agent on the pharmacy doorstep,” Unruh simply explained, “That man didn’t act fast enough. He didn’t get out of my way.”

He’d gone out that morning, he admitted, with one bullet in the chamber, 16 loose bullets and two clips of eight, because his neighbors had been making derogatory remarks about my character.

A check of his records indicated no report of mental illness before, during, or after his Army service. In fact, he had an exemplary record as a soldier and those who knew him reported that he was not a drinker. No one knew much then about post-traumatic stress disorder, or even combat fatigue (which they called war neurosis). Few people knew much about paranoid character disorders or schizophrenia.

Eighteen civilian witnesses were interviewed and most claimed that Unruh had entered the barbershop first, but Unruh insisted it was the shoemaker, with the barbershop second, so his report became the official one.

Between what neighbors said and what Unruh told his questioners (this was in the days before people were told they had the right to remain silent), a narrative about was pieced together.

It was learned that on September 5, the evening before, Unruh was in Philadelphia at the 24-hour Family Theater, where he watched a double feature. One movie was I Cheated the Law, about how a lawyer seeking justice tricks a gangster into confessing to murder. The other was The Lady Gambles, starring Barbara Stanwyck, about a woman with a gambling addiction who destroys nearly everything in her life. Unruh sat through both three times, thinking that Barbara Stanwyck was one of his hated neighbors. He left the theater for home at about 3:00 a.m.

At that time, he discovered that someone had stolen his outside gate. He and his mothers friend had just installed it that day, because the only other way to get access to the apartment door was through the gate owned by Rose and Maurice Cohen. They owned the pharmacy downstairs in the same building and had their residence next door on the same floor as the Unruhs. Prior to cutting a gateway into the fence, he’d had to walk through a weedy lot to get out to the street, or use their gate. Rose sometimes complained that Howard left the gate standing open, and she and her husband both disliked the loud music that Howard played on the radio late at night. Their squabbles had led to a threat to revoke his gate privileges.

“When I came home last night and found my gate had been taken,” Unruh said, “I decided to shoot all of them so I would get the right one.”

He went to bed angry and got up around 8:00 a.m. to eat a breakfast of fried eggs that his mother had prepared. She asked him what was wrong but he told her nothing about his plan. He went into the basement to retrieve some items and came back, going into the living room. He seemed to go into a trance, according to the statement Mrs. Unruh gave later, and when she probed to find out what was wrong, he spun around and menaced her with a wrench.

She left the house and went to the home of friends, the Pinnars, to tell them she was afraid that tensions were coming to a head and that her son no longer loved her. (By some accounts, she had narrowly escaped death by leaving when she did.) It was Mr. Pinnar who had helped build the gate the day before. David Everitt claims that Mrs. Unruh had told them she was most afraid of her sons eyes. Freda Unruh would later tell reporters, he stared at her as if he had no idea who she was.

After she left, Unruh returned to his preparation. He figured that 9:30 was the time to begin, because most of the stores would be open at that time. He could shoot everyone who had been talking about him. He had a German 9-mm. Luger that he had bought for $37.50 at M & H Sporting Goods in Philadelphia, and he had thirty-three rounds of ammunition. It was enough to do what he had in mind.

At just after nine o’clock, he had walked out into the neighborhood, fully armed.

The Story Unfolds

Two people believed they had hit Unruh with a bullet — the tavern owner and a police officer, but only when Unruh got off his chair after hours of questioning did anyone notice the bloodstain. He had been wounded in his right side but he was uncomplaining throughout the interrogation. He was sent to Cooper Hospital, the same place where the victims were being treated or placed in the morgue.

There he underwent surgery for his own wound, but surgeons were unable to remove the bullet. That meant they could not determine who had actually shot him. (While the newspapers offer no answer in later reports, most accounts attribute the hit to Frank Engel.)

Two psychiatrists, Drs. H. E. Yaskin and James Ryan, were assigned to ask Unruh questions while he was still hospitalized at Cooper. What they learned would be compared with assessments by other professionals later, because it seemed clear that, regardless of his past record, he was destined for psychiatric treatment. They (along with reporters looking for Unruh’s acquaintances) learned more about his background.

Unruh was living with his mother, Freda, in a small apartment on River Road. He had a married younger brother living in Haddon Heights and his father, Samuel Unruh, was alive but estranged from the family. (Samuel had come to City Hall when he’d heard about the shootings.)

Unruh had had an ordinary childhood and seemed to have been a well-behaved boy, although reportedly he was quiet and moody. He attended the Lutheran church every Sunday and studied the Bible. When he was of age, he enlisted in the army in 1942 to fight for America during World War II, but most people did not realize that this was not just a patriotic duty for him. It was also an experience of death that he painstakingly documented.

He took excessive care of his rifle and was a brave soldier as a tank gunner in Italy, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and France, taking part in the relief of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Whenever he killed a German, he wrote down the day, hour, and place. If he actually glimpsed the remains, he described the corpse in some detail, to the point where a fellow soldier who read the tight-lipped, Bible-reading soldiers diary was quite shocked. Unruh was honorably discharged in 1945. Like many soldiers, he returned home with medals and a collection of firearms.

He decorated his bedroom in the three-room apartment with military pieces. Berger writes that on the walls he had crossed pistols, machetes, crossed German bayonets, and photographs of armored artillery in action. Even his ashtrays were made from German shells.

Unlike other soldiers, he did not try to find a girlfriend and settle down, although for a few weeks prior to his enlistment he had dated a young woman who went to his church but he had ended this relationship by letter from overseas. After coming home, he mostly remained inside his mother’s apartment, rarely going out and becoming increasingly more reclusive. She supported them both with her income as a packer for a soap company, although Howard had made and sold several model trains. For three months, he took pharmacy courses at Temple University in Philadelphia, across the river. He also went to church and attended Bible classes.

“I always thought of Howard as a soft-spoken young man,” said the pastor of his Lutheran church. “He came to services regularly before the war. After the war, he came mornings and evenings regularly for about a year. About three months ago, he stopped entirely.” The pastor’s wife called Unruh the mildest type of man you could meet.

Mrs. Pinnar, who had corresponded with Howard when he was overseas, said when he came back he was different. He always appeared to be very nervous. He walked very straight on the street, his head rigid, never glancing to the right or left. She thought he was suffering from war neurosis.

Unruh’s brother, James, 25, said that Howard was a born-again Christian who had undergone a deep religious experience and had tried to live by the ways of Christ. Yet he’d become nervous over the past couple of months, according to statements James made to the New York Times. He just seemed changed.

Another church member who visited him a month after he stopped going to church said that he exhibited strange behavior, believing that people were making things hard for him. This is precisely what Unruh’s mother had been frightened about.

Unruh’s primary recreation was collecting guns and target shooting in the basement. Eventually he stopped going out. Without a job, he just sat around the house, often thinking about his neighbors.

He kept a list of grudges against them, imagining how he would get his revenge. He felt that people in the neighborhood were slandering him, talking behind his back. Next to each offenders name he had recorded that particular persons misdeeds. Then he had placed the word ‘retal,’ short for retaliation. “I had been thinking about killing them for some time,” Unruh commented. “I’d have killed a thousand if I’d had bullets enough.”

Despite Unruh’s claim that he had pondered all of this while at the movies, many people believed that the damage he saw to the gate when he came home from the theater was the final straw. Freda Unruh had sensed that morning that something terrible was going to happen. As she left the Pinnars home that morning, according to them, she heard gunfire at a distance and went back in, crying, “Oh Howard, Howard, they’re to blame for this.” She asked for a phone to call the police, but before she reached it, she fainted. (Some accounts say a doctor revived her and took her to her sister’s. Others say that the Pinnars revived her and she went back out.)

In sum, Howard Unruh appeared to be a quiet man who developed suspicions but kept them to himself, letting them simmer and grow into paranoid delusions. Now his fate was in the hands of a team of mental health professionals.


When he was able to leave Cooper Hospital, Unruh was sent to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital), to be installed into a bed in a private cell in the maximum-security Vroom Building.

Only twelve hours earlier, 10-year-old John Wilson, who had been with his mother and grandmother in a car when all of them were shot, had died from his injury. This put the death count at thirteen. Prosecutor Cohen emphasized that the killer had not been declared insane, but that he would be receiving tests to determine his state of mind. It was not an involuntary admission by the court, but a voluntary agreement that four psychiatrists had recommended and Unruh had accepted. He’d asked to be subjected to further study and observation.

Since he would need bed rest for at least two weeks anyway, the prosecutor had no reservations about leaving him in the hands of psychiatrists. “It will benefit all concerned,” he said. “We will get the full and complete results of all possible study.” He filed the charges for 13 willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought and three counts of atrocious assault and battery.

On Friday morning, September 9, Freda Unruh learned from her estranged husband the full facts of her son’s fate. “Howard, poor Howard,” she cried. “He didn’t know what he was doing.” She fainted before she had heard all the details. Then she worried that the hospital would not have enough handkerchiefs for Howard’s hay fever.

Soon there were rumors that two of the four psychiatrists had determined that Unruh was sane. “He appears cognizant of his surroundings,” said Dr. Dean Cavalli, a Camden area physician, “and knows between right and wrong.” But he added that he himself was not a psychiatrist. Nothing further was forthcoming. They expected the tests to last more then a month.

At the hospital, Dr. Robert S. Garber, assistant superintendent, and Dr. James Spradley began their assessments, attended by the prosecutor and several detectives. News photographers were permitted to enter the isolation cell for pictures. Unruh submitted without expression, although he turned his head when they asked him to.

Reportedly, Unruh was surprised by the treatment he was receiving. “It is certainly a lot better than I deserve,” he commented. He expressed some remorse over dropping out of pharmacy courses, because he could have devoted his life to saving lives. No one records him feeling badly about the victims.

During the testing, the relative of the boy who recently had died showed up in the doorway of Unruh’s cell.

“I’m going to get him!” the man yelled, trying to rush inside, but the police guards restrained him and took him out.

Dr. Edward Strecker, of the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant for the armed services, told reporters that war does not cause an increase in the number of actual cases of insanity. (Ironically, on the same page is an incident of another veteran creating havoc in a restaurant by hitting people with a chair and being shot dead by the police. He’d been angry that someone suggested he get psychiatric help.) Strecker believed that Unruh’s illness must have built up over the years. The type of killing that he had done could not be traced to military service. The war had simply provided the opportunity to learn the weapons. Although he had not examined Unruh himself, he thought the man had gone gun crazy once he started shooting.

Another psychiatrist, unidentified, thought that Unruh’s overtly religious character might have given him a savior complex, and when he saw that he had failed to save the world, he reacted.

While they awaited the official results, reporters looked around for earlier signs of Unruh’s mental instability. The Woodrow Wilson High School yearbook from 1939 indicated that he was shy and that his ambition was to become a government employee. They called him “How.” A check of his records revealed Bs and Cs for things like health, courtesy, and personal impression. There was no evaluation of his intelligence, but his mental alertness was average.

After two months of personality and physiological tests, the assessment was concluded and the final diagnosis was Dementia praecox, mixed type, with pronounced catatonic and paranoid coloring. Unruh was a paranoid schizophrenic, caught in a world of his own delusions and separated from reality. His mental illness had come upon him slowly and was not caused by combat.

Pronounced insane, he was immune from criminal prosecution but was sentenced for the remainder of his life to the Vroom building, the unit for the criminally insane.

Mass vs. Spree

In Who Killed Precious?, a book about the FBI’s approach to mass murderers and serial killers, H. Paul Jeffers says that before Howard Unruh’s rampage, mass murders in America were rare. After Unruh, there’s hardly been a year stained by it. On Mass Murders, an American Justice documentary, it was claimed that mass murders have been on the rise over the past three decades and that around the country there are an average of two a month. Two hundred people each year become victims, and seven of the ten worst cases in our history have occurred since 1980. Many experts see this as a sign of the breakdown of social controls.

A mass murderer, according to the FBI Crime Classification Manual, is someone who kills four or more people in close succession in a single locale, or in closely related locales. This differs from a spree killer, who may have similar motives and ambitions, but who tends to travel over a series of loosely related or unrelated locations. Mass murderers come in two basic varieties: family killers such as John List, who slaughtered his mother, wife, and three children, or classic mass murderers, like Charles Whitman or Richard Speck.

Mass murderers are male, white, usually over 30, and generally own at least one gun. Criminologist James Fox says the availability of guns has influenced the increase in mass murders because guns distance people from their crimes, a desire common to mass murderers. They want it to be easy and fast.

Mass Murderers are typically quite ordinary. They’re reclusive, have few if any friends, and have no criminal record. However, they do not let go of past grievances and they tend to build and fester, with minor incidents being perceived as major offenses, and impersonal ones as personal. Some stress, such as a broken relationship, a loss, or unemployment, may be the trigger that sets everything in motion. They blame others for their failures and their motive is generally to strike back, to punish, and to exact as much damage as they can manage. The higher the death toll, the better they have succeeded. People who have been dismissing or ignoring them are not going to forget them now. Their choice of targets is typically irrational, and often does not even include the one against whom they wanted vengeance. Some, like Unruh, have shown signs of psychosis, but most have been judged sane at the time of the incident.

The time period for mass murder can be minutes, hours or days, and such people typically have a mental disorder, are frustrated, and their problems have increased to the point of having to act out aggressively. Charles Whitman and James Huberty are held up as the typical example. In 1966, Whitman took an arsenal up the tower at the University of Texas in Austin to take shots at unsuspecting people from above until he was killed. In an hour and a half, he killed sixteen and wounded thirty. He had also killed his wife and mother that day. Huberty, crushed by unemployment, went hunting for humans at a McDonalds fast food restaurant in San Ysidro, California in 1984, killing 21 and wounding 19.

While the FBI manual says that because Unruh moved to different locations, his act was not classified as a mass murder, but other criminologists disagree. His spate of killings was one of the shortest on record, it was a contained neighborhood, and he did not travel in the way that spree killers like Andrew Cunanan or Charles Starkweather did. The manual calls Unruh a spree killer, but there is clearly disagreement on this classification. Since the Crime Classification Manual has not been universally adopted the way the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has been in psychiatry, exactly how to classify Unruh seems unclear.

Other examples of killers like him include:

Martin Bryant On April 28, 1996, Bryant, 28, killed the two owners of Seaside Cottages in Australia, then took two semi-automatic rifles to a tourist area in Port Arthur, where in 15 seconds he shot and killed 20 people, wounding fifteen. He then walked around shooting more, got into his car to drive a few hundred yards, killed more people, stole a car, killed more people, took a hostage, and went back to the cottages, where he killed several people driving by and then killed the hostage. The police held him under siege overnight and he ran out when the building went up in flames. His total in less than a day had been 35 dead, 18 wounded. While he is considered a mass murderer, he did move around quite a bit and he killed people in a lot of different areas, but not in the manner in which classic spree killers do, who generally stretch things out over days or weeks.

Michael Ryan – In August 1987, Ryan, 27, a gun-loving, hypersensitive young man prone to exaggerated fantasies, took an AK-47 assault rifle and several other weapons on a shooting spree in Hungerford, England, killing 15 and wounding as many before retreating to his former school and turning the gun on himself. He began in the woods, killing a woman who ran from him, then drove home to shoot the family dogs and grab ammunition. When his car failed to start, he set fire to his house and began a two-mile walk through the streets of Hungerford, shooting both acquaintances and strangers. When his mother found him and confronted him, he killed her, too. She was his eighth victim, felled by four bullets. Police set up blockades and inadvertently sent motorists directly into the killers path, where their cars were sprayed with bullets and many were killed. Ryan even entered one home and shot an elderly man to death. Finally he went into the John O’Gaunt School. Surrounded by police, he demanded to know about his mother and his dog. Before he shot himself in the head, among his last statements was, I wish I had stayed in bed.

Marc Lépine Enraged against feminists and believing that some woman got a position intended for him, militaristic Lepine armed himself on December 6, 1989 and committed the worst mass murder in Canadian history. Most of the victims were women and all of them were strangers. Lepine went to the Engineering school at the University of Montreal, separating the women from the men in one classroom before he started shooting. Six died and three were wounded. Then he left the classroom and roamed the building, now treading the line that divides mass from spree killers. Like Unruh, he just kept walking and shooting when he found people. Then he went into another classroom, killed more students and then plunged a knife into a woman struggling to survive a shot. As a final gesture, he turned a pistol on himself. Fourteen women had died; fifteen men and women had been wounded, and in the months to come, some people who had survived would kill themselves.

Given these examples of killers who move around in a fairly tight area, either we need to pinpoint a better distinction between mass and spree killers or develop a new category into which to place those who appear to be not quite in either camp. Most criminologists call Unruh a mass murderer, and his rampage does bear all the marks of a disgruntled, militaristic loner who decided to just act out.

Unruh in Retrospect

The more random the killings, says sociologist Jack Levin, and the more it occurs in public places among absolute strangers, the more likely it is that the killer is psychotic, or insane.

That was not the case with Howard Unruh. He knew most of the people he had killed, he’d placed them on a list, it was his neighborhood, and the spate of killings was the result of what he called a preconceived plan. He even believed he was not crazy. When he heard sirens, he rushed home. Thus he knew that what he had done was illegal or wrong. He was aware and he had made a plan. That frame of mind generally does not pass in today’s courts as insane.

The Encyclopedia of Schizophrenia and the Psychotic Disorders, by Dr. Richard Noll

Dr. Richard Noll, professor of psychology at DeSales University and author of The Encyclopedia of Schizophrenia and the Psychotic Disorders, now in its second edition, offers a perspective on the manner in which Unruh may have been diagnosed in 1949.

It sounds more like schizoid personality disorder or paranoid personality disorder, in modern DSM-IV parlance. When someone was violent back then, they always invoked the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. If someone was distraught (from emotional trauma, for example), that might be called pseudo-neurotic schizophrenia.

Paranoid schizophrenia is traditionally one of the most misused diagnostic labels in both clinical and forensic contexts. Schizophrenia is an insidious, chronic brain disease that takes many forms, the paranoid subtype being one of them. The age of onset for this subtype tends to be slightly older than for other subtypes, has a better prognosis, and is most likely to be helped by treatment. The hallmark of the paranoid subtype is delusions, usually of a persecutory or grandiose nature. For the individual in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital since 1949 who killed 13 people because he believed his neighbors were slandering him, you would have to place that explosive event in the context of prior mental status and subsequent clinical observations. Anyone — especially a male under great stress due to a divorce, job loss, death of a loved one, etc. — could become paranoid and violent under conditions of extreme and prolonged stress.

In a clinical contest, it is really quite difficult to distinguish between paranoid schizophrenia, an agitated manic episode of bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, a brief psychotic reaction, or someone with a paranoid personality disorder (a character disorder, not a psychotic disorder), who simply loses it. Without a detailed clinical history, it is hard to assess whether the diagnosis was a correct one. However, it is true that the diagnostic criteria for paranoid schizophrenia have tightened up considerably since the 1940s when this incident took place, and back then the term paranoid schizophrenia was liberally dispensed in a forensic context as almost a euphemism for raving madman. Anytime violence entered the case history, the paranoid schizophrenia diagnostic label was almost automatically applied, even if someone was bipolar and violent, or under stress and violent.

In other words, had he gone on his rampage today, his paranoia would have been acknowledged but unless psychosis actually affected his ability to appreciate that what he was doing was wrong or made him unable to comply with what he knew, then he would have been declared legally sane.

Howard Unruh remained at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and as of this writing, is still there, [Howard Unruh has since died on Oct 19, 2009. –ed.] according to Ramsey, mopping floors. Now in his 80s, he reportedly has spoken to no one since his mother died some years ago. He has ground privileges now and just keeps to himself.



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