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‘Ideal’ Letter Carrier Kills 3 in Escondido : Police, Co-Workers at a Loss for a Motive; Wife, 2 Co-Workers Victims of Rampage

Times Staff Writers

A 52-year-old career letter carrier, described as a model employee and as “mellow and friendly as could be,” shot his wife to death Thursday morning, then drove about half a mile to work, where he shot and killed two co-workers and wounded a third before shooting himself in the head.

The gunman, identified by police as John Merlin Taylor, was on life support systems at Palomar Medical Center and described by authorities as “brain dead.” The weapon for his rampage was a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol that police said he reloaded at least once during the outburst as some co-workers ran for safety and others stood, frozen in fear.

Police said Taylor took a box of 100 bullets and two ammunition clips with him to the city’s Orange Glen postal station but apparently fired only 15 to 20 rounds before shooting himself.

No Motive Known

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Neither police nor postal employees could offer an explanation for the rampage. “We do not have a motive,” said Escondido Police Chief Vincent Jimno. “That’s been real uncomfortable for us. We don’t have anything to hang our hat on. We know who, we know where, we know when, we just don’t know why.”

Thursday’s shooting evoked memories of other shootings at post offices around the country--including the suicide in March of postal carrier Donald Mace, who walked into the lobby of the Poway Post Office and shot himself, and of the August, 1986, massacre in Edmond, Okla., where a part-time postal carrier shot and killed 14 co-workers before killing himself.

But, unlike those incidents--in which the gunmen were openly disgruntled with their work--there was no immediate explanation for Taylor’s outburst at the Orange Glen postal station in the 1700 block of East Valley Parkway, which serves the eastern part of Escondido.

Co-workers and neighbors described Taylor, a 27-year postal veteran, as a content if not eager worker who enjoyed a happy home life as well--tainted perhaps only by frustrations brought on by a 22-year-old stepson who reportedly recently moved in with the Taylors, both on their second marriage.

Taylor was uniformly described by co-workers as affable and mellow, and by neighbors as a decent fellow who took pleasure in his perfectly manicured lawn.

Pleasant Neighbor

“John would come outside, work on his lawn, drink a beer and talk to his neighbors, and she would be inside taking care of the house,” said Barbara Pinto, who has lived next door to the Taylors since 1986.

But, on Thursday, Taylor put on his blue postal uniform and showed up at his workplace at 7:35 a.m.--armed with a Sturm-Ruger semiautomatic pistol.

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“He didn’t have any emotion. He was stern-faced,” said co-worker William Karlson, one of about 10 employees inside the building when the shooting erupted.

Already, Taylor had shot his 50-year-old wife, Elizabeth, according to Escondido police, who found her body in bed at the couple’s home in the 900 block of Begonia Street. She had been shot twice in the head and police recovered two bullet casings that matched those found at the post office. She was dressed in night clothes and covered to her waist with a blanket.

When Taylor arrived at the post office, he approached co-workers Richard Berni, 38, of San Marcos, and Ronald H. Williams, 56, of Escondido--men who had probably assumed that Taylor, as was his habit, was getting to work early so he could join them on the loading-dock picnic table for their morning coffee and a smoke before clocking in at 8 a.m. for his rounds.

This time he shot them both dead, then entered the side door of the building, shooting at some, not at others. He shot co-worker Paul DeRisi, 30, in the upper left arm, reloaded, and sprayed still more bullets inside the building, but passed by others without harming them.

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‘Shot Went Through My Arm’

“I walked back to check on someone and John Taylor walked through the side door,” DeRisi said. “I said, ‘Good morning,’ and then I heard a pop. I noticed he had a gun in his hand and the second shot went through my arm.”

DeRisi said he didn’t realize he had been shot until he felt the blood on his left arm. “I took off for the front door and another bullet passed by me,” he said. “I ran next door to a restaurant and told them to call the police.

“Then I sat down outside and said to myself, ‘Why John Taylor? Why is he doing this?’ ”

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Another postal worker, Phyllis DeVito, 37, injured her face when she fell as she tried to escape the chaos. She was treated at Palomar Medical Center.

The post office had opened to the public for business at 7 a.m. but apparently the only ones in the building at the time were the 10 postal workers, some of whom had gotten to work early.

Williams had recently completed an extended term as president of the North San Diego County local of the National Assn. of Letter Carriers.

Berni was a five-year veteran of the Postal Service, authorities said. He had recently moved from Albuquerque with his wife, Pamela, and three children. He was active as a Little League coach. His youngest son, Christian, is just 5 months old.

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“His kids were his life,” said Norma Vega, a family friend. “He was always happy, always ready and willing to help others. He was a kid himself.”

Police arrived at the scene moments after being called and discovered the carnage. Employees who escaped the shooting inside gathered outdoors and were met by co-workers still arriving for work; about 63 workers would have been on duty at 8 a.m.--just 25 minutes after the shooting. Instead, they gathered in small knots and, for the most part, declined to talk to reporters. Some hugged each other; others cried.

Three counselors were quickly dispatched by the Postal Service to the scene and immediately began sessions with some of the traumatized workers.

Postal supervisors suspended mail delivery for the day to the about 25,000 addresses served by the station.

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Williams’ wife, Arlene, said she got word of the shooting from her daughter-in-law, who heard about it on the radio.

Headed to Shooting Scene

“I waited to hear from him, and I didn’t,” she said. “I tried to call the post office, but I couldn’t get through. Then, I thought I’d better head over there and find out for myself.

“When I got there, nobody would look at me or tell me anything, and I began to get suspicious.” Authorities finally broke the news to her. “I’m just grateful,” she said, “that they hadn’t suffered.”

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Arlene Williams said her husband looked to Taylor as a role model. “My husband always admired him. He didn’t have anything against John,” she said. “I don’t think John had anything against him, either.”

DeRisi felt the same way.

“As far as I know, everybody thought he was the ideal carrier,” DeRisi said about the man who shot him. “Even the people on his route. People knew him on a first-name basis, and that’s just the way carriers should be.”

There was widespread speculation about what provoked Taylor’s outburst, ranging from job pressures to domestic problems. Although friends said Taylor was not a complainer, he made a comment to co-workers Wednesday night indicating growing frustration with a job from which he was within three years of retiring.

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“Wednesday night, when he went home, he made some comment about how there’s not enough mail here,” said one co-worker who asked not to be identified. “But he was being sarcastic, because there was a ton of mail in there.”

“None of this figures,” he said. “He knew those people--he’d sit out with them each morning and chat with them. He could have shot me just as easily.”

Others dismissed any notion that Taylor had suffered burn-out on the job. “He’s probably the friendliest employee in there,” Karlson said. “He never voiced a complaint. The rest of us, we’d bitch, but this guy was too nice to bitch about anything.”

Gary Williams, the postmaster overseeing Escondido’s two post offices, said:

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“He was well-liked by management, staff and fellow employees. I never knew him to have a short word with anybody.” In fact, Taylor was recently selected for a quarterly performance award--but declined the honor and asked that it be given to someone else, since he had won it several times before.

San Diego Postmaster Margaret Sellers, who arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting, said, “This is a model station, and he was a model employee.”

Co-worker Johnny Sims said that, on Tuesday, there was discussion among postal carriers--including Taylor--about the Aug. 20, 1986, shooting when a part-time letter carrier, Patrick Sherrill, walked into the Edmond, Okla., post office and shot and killed 14 co-workers before killing himself.

“We were talking about something and got around to saying, ‘What if something happened to one of the employees that would have gotten him mad and to go berserk?’ ” Sims said. “We were just joking around. John was a happy-go-lucky guy always. You could never make him mad.”

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Some fellow letter carriers said Taylor was grumbling recently that his 22-year-old stepson was not working and had moved in with him and his wife. Indeed, there was concern for the whereabouts of the stepson, who was Elizabeth Taylor’s son by her first marriage. Taylor has five grown children from his first marriage.

His stepson apparently heard of the shooting on his car radio and drove to the scene, not sure whether his stepfather was involved, Lt. Earl Callander said.

Chief Jimno, however, downplayed the significance of Taylor’s dispute with his stepson and referred to the problem only as an “increased paranoia” on Taylor’s part.

Neighbors of the Taylors were equally disbelieving Thursday morning as the commotion at the local post office spilled over into their quiet, older neighborhood and police cordoned off the couple’s one-story, brown wood home.

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Inside, police found a clean and well-kept house, Jimno said. No notes were found, nor any other weapons or ammunition--although police were waiting for a formal search warrant before they went through the house thoroughly.

There were no signs of a struggle, Jimno said.

Brian Meyers, 16, who lives next door to the Taylors, said the couple seemed to enjoy a happy marriage, punctuated by rare arguments.

Another neighbor, Don Sceville, who helped the couple remodel their kitchen, said Taylor had a temper that was frequently set off by his wife.

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“She was a cute gal,” he said, “a real nice personality, but she did nag him. She was always into him for something . . . but he did love her, there’s no doubt about that.”

Pinto, the next-door neighbor, said: “They were very friendly, a nice couple. They had a lot of friends. They went out dancing, and they had people over. I don’t know why this would happen.”

Pinto said Mrs. Taylor, who worked in the jewelry department at the Montgomery Ward Focus store in Escondido, “was the talker, and he (Taylor) was the listener. She could talk to anybody. I know they loved each other very much. He called her ‘Poopsie.’ ”

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Robert Welkos, Lori Grange and Anthony Millican.

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CO-WORKERS’ TERROR--'He had a real look of vengeance on his face.’

Workers say postal stress can extract a terrible toll. Part II.


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