15 YEARS AGO: Three slain by gunman in Nevada County
Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 11, 2001 by The Union.
Two separate gunfire attacks by a mental patient Wednesday left three people dead, three injured, authorities said, and western Nevada County trying to grasp a tragedy that previously seemed possible anywhere but here.
A daylong search for the suspect, Scott Harlan Thorpe, 40, a county Behavioral Health Department client, ended with his 9 p.m. arrest at his Smartsville house at 10743 Mooney Flat Road, the Sheriff’s Department reported.
“I think a lot of us will sleep a lot easier,” said Patrick Ward, analyst for the Board of Supervisors and acting county public information officer. “It’s a significant tragedy for Nevada County, one I hope we’ll not have to endure again.”
Authorities went to the house after Thorpe’s brother, Kent Thorpe, a Sacramento peace officer, reported that his brother phoned him and admitted to the shootings.
The chaos began unraveling just before 11:30 a.m.
Thorpe allegedly walked into the county Behavioral Health Department off Willow Valley Road in Nevada City and shot three people with a handgun, killing two. A fourth person suffered a broken pelvis and other injuries when she jumped from a second-floor window to escape the gunfire.
Thorpe was somehow upset with the department, Sheriff Keith Royal said.
Less than 10 minutes later and four miles away, at Lyon’s Restaurant on Nevada City Highway, the same suspected gunman asked for the manager, then allegedly shot and killed him and then shot a fleeing cook through the back, witnesses said.
Thorpe allegedly thought the restaurant was poisoning him, Royal said.
The sheriff said none of the victims appeared to be specific targets.
“I think we can extend that the shooting occurred by the victims being at the location, by their mere presence,” Royal said. “It’s very unfortunate that occurred.”
Fear that the gunman wasn’t done shooting prompted the closing of schools, businesses and government offices. County officials ushered in crisis counselors. Nevada City Highway was closed to traffic during the initial search.
“It’s just out of the norm for our little town, but it seems like it’s happening more and more,” said Jerry Bradley, who heard six gunshots from Lyon’s while working next door at Sierra Motor Sports.
Investigators worked from a list of several possible suspects and weren’t initially convinced that both incidents shared the same suspect, Royal said.
Royal said Thorpe was “seeking some kind of assistance” at the Behavioral Health Department but didn’t know further details.
The department is housed in the county Health Education and Welfare Building. The gunman shot three people — two workers and a caretaker — and fired through a glass partition to kill at least one of the victims.
An HEW crisis counselor, John Eby, called 911 after hearing several shots. “Hell yes, get here now!” he told an Emergency Command Center dispatcher.
The shots sent panic through the department of 55-some workers.
“There was a ton of screaming,” Eby said.
The gunman killed a 19-year-old intern, Laura Wilcox, and 68-year-old Pearlie Mae Feldman, who brought a client to an appointment, an office worker said.
The third shooting victim at the HEW Building, Judith Edzards, 49, a county supervising health technician, survived multiple gunshot wounds. She was in critical condition with four bullet wounds Wednesday night at Sutter Roseville Medical Center.
Daizy Switzer, a 35-year-old Behavioral Health Department employee, suffered a broken pelvis and ankle and fractured back in her second-story leap.
Royal said the gunman shot at least one of the victims through a sheet of glass that separated the lobby from the receptionist’s area.
At Lyon’s, the gunman asked for the manager and wound up shooting the assistant manager, Mike Markle, according to two workers who witnessed the shooting.
“I didn’t have time to be scared. Now I’m kind of scared,” said cook Jose Barba, 32, who leaped over a counter as the gunman shot Markle three times with a handgun.
A busboy, 18-year-old Juan Maldonado, fled after the shooting.
“I didn’t think nothing,” he said. “I was just running, and that’s it.”
He said Markle had worked at the restaurant three days, leading Maldonado to believe he was an unintended target.
“I think he got the wrong one,” he said.
Maldonado saw the gunman carrying a gun in one hand, a briefcase in the other.
The witnesses said the gunman next shot a cook, Richard Senuty, 34, who suffered chest and abdominal wounds. He was in stable condition at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.
Before the shootings, Barba said, Senuty twice asked the gunman, “Can I help you?”
One of the first officers on the scene, David Qualls of the California Highway Patrol, found Markle near the kitchen and Senuty lying outside Lyon’s rear exit.
The building was in disarray, with broken dishes everywhere and customers’ coats and purses left on tables.
“It was nerve-racking, to say the least,” Qualls said.
Bradley, at Sierra Motor Sports, saw customers streaming out of the restaurant toward Nevada City Highway, and a blue truck or van head toward Albertson’s across the street. He said the shots were loud, as though from a large-caliber gun.
“The whole thing was quick,” he said.
The search, however, took some time.
Early on, authorities stopped several people who matched the suspect’s description – a heavyset, 6-foot-tall white man with a goatee and dishwater-blond hair parted down the middle.
As it turns out, Thorpe is 5 feet 8 inches, 175 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes.
Thorpe phoned his brother at 5 p.m., and about 15 officers surrounded the Mooney Flat house, less than a mile from Highway 20. One officer negotiated by phone with Thorpe for two hours before his peaceful surrender.
Officers with the Sheriff’s Department, Placer County SWAT team and California Highway Patrol barricaded the end of Mooney Flat Road at Highway 20 – turning the Driftwood Inn into a temporary gathering spot.
The throng of law enforcement and media scared away customers at the Driftwood Inn, said owner Christine York, who canceled other customers’ reservations to keep them out of harm’s way.
But, she said, “They’re doing a good job, and I’m glad they’re here doing their job.”
Royal said no weapons have been recovered.
“I will tell you the investigation is far from over,” Royal said.
The HEW Building won’t reopen until Tuesday, and Elizabeth Martin, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said county workers will be informed of the latest developments at a closed meeting this morning. Grief counselors will also be on hand.
At one of four press conferences during the day, Martin contrasted the county’s typically serene Foothills setting with the shootings. She also outlined the need for security at government buildings.
“This kind of incident underlines how difficult this line of work can be,” she said.
— Pete Skiba, John Dickey, Grace Karpa, Kerana Todorov, Tim Omarzu and Kevin Wiser also contributed to this story.
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