Gunman Kills 7 and Himself at Kentucky Plant

Times Staff Writer

An emotionally disturbed former employee armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire in a printing plant Thursday, killing seven people and wounding 15 before fatally shooting himself in the head.

Police said that the man, Joseph T. Wesbecker, 47, roamed the three-story Standard Gravure Corp. building for 20 minutes Thursday morning, shooting anyone who came within view.

The police SWAT unit had entered the building and was trying to pinpoint his location when Wesbecker, who had brought with him a small arsenal of semiautomatic weapons, shot himself in the head with a SIG-Sauer 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun, police said.

Compared to Combat Zone

Those who witnessed the scene, and doctors who treated the wounded, compared the carnage to a combat zone.

Bodies of the dead and wounded littered hallways, offices and stairwells of the building.

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, who entered the building with paramedics about 40 minutes after Wesbecker's rampage began, said: "After an hour-plus of being there, there was a guy we found who was cowering in a corner. (He) had not been shot, but was going through shock."

"I haven't seen anything like this since Vietnam," said Dr. David Seligson, an orthopedic surgeon at Humana Hospital who served at a Navy hospital in Vietnam in 1970. "Most of the victims had multiple gunshot wounds, really devastating gunshot wounds."

Dr. David Richardson, a surgeon at the hospital, where 14 of the wounded were taken, said the assault rifle fired bullets with such velocity that they shattered bone, causing much greater damage than an ordinary weapon would have.

"I've been a policeman 28 1/2 years," said Louisville Police Chief Richard Dotson. "This is the worst (shooting) I've ever seen."

Police and fellow workers said Wesbecker, a former pressman, had been on long-term disability from the Standard Gravure for about two years and had had a number of disagreements with company supervisors.

"I think he thought the company treated him unfairly and he was getting even," said Don Frazier, president of Local 19 of the Graphic Communications International union. "He made some not very veiled threats that he would get even with them when he was put off on long-term disability."

Police Lt. Jeff Moody said Wesbecker had been under a doctor's care for emotional problems and had attempted suicide three times.

'One of Nicest Guys'

Frazier said Wesbecker had been put on disability because of emotional problems. "He was one of the nicest guys you'd ever work with up until he started having emotional problems and difficulty with the company as he perceived them," he said.

Joseph A. Early, a rotogravure pressman whose shift sometimes overlapped with Wesbecker's, said he had a "cordial type" of friendship with him. But he said he noticed a change in Wesbecker after his divorce a few years ago.

Frazier said he became concerned two years ago when he learned that Wesbecker was reading Soldier of Fortune magazine, and had said that he was thinking about ordering an Uzi, an Israeli semiautomatic weapon.

Police said that Wesbecker confronted a co-worker near the entrance of the building who tried to talk him out of going inside.

One co-worker, John Tingle, told the Associated Press that he greeted Wesbecker near the entrance. "I said, 'How are you, Rock?' " Tingle recalled. "He said, 'Fine, John. Back off and get out of the way . . . all the way to the wall.' "

"I told them I'd be back," he quoted Wesbecker as saying. "Get out of my way, John. I told them I'd be back."

Tingle and other employees nearby then ran into a bathroom and locked the door.

Bag Filled With Weapons

Wesbecker carried a brown and blue leather duffel bag that was filled with weapons. It held two Cabray Mac-11 semiautomatic 9-millimeter handguns, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, a bayonet, more than 20 boxes of ammunition and numerous ammunition clips for the assault rifle.

Police were unsure if the assault rifle and the handgun he used to kill himself were in the duffel bag when he entered the building or if he carried them in by hand.

According to the police, Wesbecker parked his red Chevrolet Monza near the door to the building and took the elevator to the third floor, which is where the executive offices are located. Once there, he shot the receptionist and another woman.

He then walked east through the building, shooting anyone he confronted in hallways and offices.

They all were shot at close range. "I'd say none of them were shot from more than 15 to 20 feet away," said Sgt. Marty McDermott of the Louisville Police Department Physical Assault Unit, one of the first police officers on the scene.

Wesbecker then followed a third level walkway from the Standard Gravure building to the Courier Journal newspaper building, where he took the stairs down to the basement. He shot one person in the stairwell, police said.

After reaching the basement, he shot one more person and then went up to the first floor, where he fired more shots before shooting himself.

McDermott said that Wesbecker shot himself in the head while police officers combed the building, looking for him.

"I'm glad he killed himself when he did," said Major Ed Mercer, chief of detectives, "because our bulletproof vests wouldn't have stopped shots from an AK-47."

Early, the pressman who knew Wesbecker, was just finishing his shift when Wesbecker entered the building. The pressman didn't witness the shooting, but he volunteered to enter the building to shut down the presses after it had ended.

With a quivering voice, he said: "It was just a massacre. There's no other way to explain it. I haven't seen anything like it since I was in 'Nam about 20 years ago. A lot of carnage."

Dr. Richardson, the Humana Hospital surgeon, said at one point Thursday that 100 physicians were working at once and that eight operating rooms were being used for the people Wesbecker wounded. Two hundred units of blood were administered.

"In 15 years I have not seen such a totally destructive shooting scene," said Dr. Richard Greathouse, Jefferson County coroner. "It looks like he was just shooting whoever happened to come within range of the automatic weapon."

Paid 60% of Salary

Wesbecker, who Frazier said had worked for the company for 20 years, was retired on long-term disability and received about 60% of his yearly income. "That was part of what he perceived as unfair treatment," the union president said.

"He was very bitter with the owner and the chief executive of the company and some of the supervision in the pressroom itself," he added. "He didn't think they treated him fairly . . . . He wanted to work at a less stressful job, which they couldn't work out, or he wanted to retire at a better level than what they actually gave him."

Police said they did not yet know if any of the shooting victims were supervisors. Reportedly, company executives were not at the building when the shootings occurred.

The newspaper building was evacuated after the shootings. At least two downtown blocks were sealed off and a dozen ambulances lined the streets.

It was the worst one-day mass killing in the United States since Aug. 20, 1986, when a postal worker shot 14 people to death before killing himself at a post office in Edmond, Okla.

On Jan. 17, a 24-year-old drifter opened fire on a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard with an AK-47 rifle and other weapons, killing five children and wounding 29 others and one teacher before killing himself. That prompted a federal ban on imports of AK-47 and other foreign-made assault weapons.

Police would not discuss what led to Wesbecker's disgruntlement. Police officials indicated, though, that there had been widespread morale problems at the company. "A couple of people said they weren't surprised that something like that happened," one police official said.

Standard Gravure Corp. once was part of the publishing empire owned by Barry Bingham of Louisville. It became a separate company when the Bingham newspapers were sold to Gannett several years ago.

Staff writers Larry Green and Tracy Shryer contributed to this story from Chicago.

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