Piccard had cancer, neighbor discloses

WHEELING – One day before Thomas Piccard used an assault rifle and a handgun to pepper Wheeling’s Federal Building with more than 20 rounds Wednesday, the retired Wheeling police officer told a neighbor he had been diagnosed with cancer.

Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger identified 55-year-old Piccard as the man who opened fire on the Federal Building at 2:43 p.m. Wednesday, striking and shattering multiple windows before a responding city officer shot and killed him. A motive for the shooting remains unclear.

Robert Orgovan has lived across the street from Piccard at Presidential Estates in Bridgeport since Piccard moved into a mobile home there about a year ago. Orgovan first met him a few years ago, when Piccard was living at Booker T. Washington Apartment on Chapline Street in Wheeling.

He said Piccard told him on Tuesday that he was suffering from stomach cancer. Orgovan also recalled Piccard said his nephew was picking him up the following day – the day of the shooting – to take him to Florida.

Orgovan and fellow neighbor Mahlon Shields were in disbelief over the shooting. They both said they had conversations with Piccard while he lived in the community, and there was nothing alarming about him.

Piccard was in a drug rehabilitation program with Orgovan’s roommate about five years ago, Orgovan said.

Piccard’s body remained at Wheeling Hospital late Wednesday. Schwertfeger said it would be sent to the state Medical Examiner’s office in Charleston for autopsy.

Three Federal Building security guards sustained minor injuries from breaking glass. They were treated at a local hospital and released.

Schwertfeger said during a news conference Piccard resigned from the police department in July 2000. Schwertfeger said he has not yet reviewed Piccard’s personnel file, and did not know the circumstances of his resignation.

“As to motive, clearly that’s what remains the key investigative component tonight that we continue to work on,” Schwertfeger said. “Part of that includes the decedent’s vehicle, which remains at the crime scene on Chapline Street, as well as the decedent’s residence.”

The Allegheny County, Pa. bomb squad secured Piccard’s mobile home on Wednesday night “as a precautionary measure,” said FBI Special Agent Bob Johnson of the Pittsburgh office. An FBI evidence response team searched that residence and removed an exterior panel where a variation of the phrase “Abandon hope all ye who enter this place” was written in Latin.

The circumstances surrounding the shooting remained unclear Wednesday evening, with Johnson noting agents would be reviewing video surveillance from around the Federal Building. Witnesses at the scene report Piccard stood among vehicles in a parking lot on Chapline Street across from the Federal Building when he fired shots from an assault rifle, changing magazines at least once. He then drew a pistol and continued firing at the building.

“The windows themselves, the bullets did penetrate some of them, and there are shards of glass inside the Federal Building,” said U.S. Marshal Gary Gaskins when asked if the glass at the Federal Building was bullet or shatter-proof.

While no motive is known, a number of rounds fired by Piccard struck at least three windows of U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld’s office on the Federal Building’s second floor.

About 40 percent of Ihlenfeld’s staff has been furloughed due to the federal government shutdown and were not in the building during the shooting.

Ihlenfeld recalled that he heard “what sounded like gunshots and then panic within the office. Members of my staff were crawling on the floor or running office to office telling people to get away from the windows.”

A responding Wheeling police officer and a Federal Building security guard shot and killed Piccard, Schwertfeger said. The Wheeling officer was placed on administrative leave pending a review of the shooting.

Wheeling officers, State Police troopers, sheriff’s deputies, U.S. Marshals and Wheeling Fire Department personnel surrounded Piccard’s body in the parking lot before he was transported by ambulance to Wheeling Hospital.

Piccard’s weapons were turned over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for analysis. Several Wheeling police detectives marked the areas where spent shell casings lay on the ground Wednesday. In addition to Piccard’s vehicle, a sedan, several cars will remain unmoved in the lot as investigators process the scene.

As an assistant prosecutor from 1997-2000, Ihlenfeld handled criminal cases investigated by Piccard. Ihlenfeld said he did not observe any alarming behavior in that time, and was not aware of any grievances Piccard may have had with him or his office. Ihlenfeld also confirmed that Piccard was not under federal investigation.

Special Agent Johnson said investigators will interview Wheeling police officers that worked with Piccard. He did not have any details about Piccard’s most recent employment.

“A life was lost in downtown Wheeling today,” Schwertfeger said Wednesday, “and despite the circumstances, our condolences go out to the family members there.”

Sara Ahrens, U.S. Marshals Service judicial security inspector, said a “shelter-in-place” procedure was implemented at the Federal Building from the time the first shots were fired until authorities permitted employees to exit their offices.

The southern end of the Federal Building, which houses a post office, was open to the public today. Ihlenfeld said many members of his office staff were left shaken by the shooting, and those employees will be encouraged to stay at home.