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Baffling Portrait of S.F. Gunman Emerges : Violence: Some say he was polite and withdrawn, others call him strange and secretive.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS; Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Michael Connelly and Dean E. Murphy in Los Angeles, Richard C. Paddock in San Francisco, Timothy Williams in Woodland Hills and Times special correspondent Joshua B. Good in Las Vegas. It was written by Murphy

No one disputes that Gian Luigi Ferri had fallen on hard times. His Woodland Hills mortgage business was a shambles. He complained of bad credit and failed real estate deals. The rent on his $750-a-month apartment was two weeks overdue and he owed income taxes.

But no one could comprehend Friday why the secretive Ethiopian-born businessman armed himself with three pistols and drove his late-model Cadillac to a San Francisco high-rise, rode the elevator to the 34th floor with a list of targets and killed eight strangers before turning a gun on himself Thursday.

“The man I married hated violence,” said Donna Benedetti, who was briefly married to Ferri in 1969. “He hated guns. He hated war. He hated all kinds of violence.”

A senior attorney with Pettit & Martin, the law firm where the gunman shot most of his victims, said Ferri had a 10-year-old grievance with the firm over a real estate transaction in Indianapolis that had soured. But he could not explain the violent rampage, saying that Ferri had never filed a complaint against his lawyers and had not been to the firm’s offices in the financial district since 1983.

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“Everybody he shot had nothing to do with him--ever,” said the attorney, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “I don’t think there is anything more than perhaps he made a real estate investment.”

Ferri, 55, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology from UC Santa Cruz and may have had an advanced degree as well, had a mysterious network of business dealings extending across the United States, including one company in Las Vegas that did nothing but refer calls and mail to his California address for $140 a month.

“He was really a strange man,” said Diane Mohler, manager of the Business Center of Las Vegas, which had received calls and collected mail for Ferri’s ADF Mortgage Inc. until about six months ago. “You couldn’t get anything out of him. He was really secretive.”

His personal finances were awry, too: The California Franchise Tax Board filed a $3,060.02 lien against Ferri on May 19 in Marin County for non-payment of personal income taxes in 1990.

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Before moving to Woodland Hills from Northern California about 18 months ago, Ferri ran a real estate investment firm in the Marin County town of Larkspur. An acquaintance there described him as a “wheeler-dealer.” Ferri had been a defendant in a lawsuit that accused him of accepting $480,000 from investors but refusing to return any profits.

Attorney Fredrica Greene, who represented the investors, said the suit was dropped because it would have cost too much to unravel what she described as Ferri’s complicated financial dealings. “He didn’t seem like a bad guy, but I definitely had a feeling that he might be of less-than-sterling character,” Greene said.

Officials with the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services said Ferri worked for the department as a counselor for five years in the 1970s.

Mill Valley therapist Elin Modjeska told the Marin County Independent Journal that Ferri ran a psychodrama group in which patients acted out family situations. The newspaper also obtained a copy of a resume submitted by Ferri to a local Rotary Club in the early 1980s that lists his mental health experience as well as volunteer work for the ministry of Rev. Terry Cole-Whittaker, a former televangelist and advocate of positive thinking who coined the slogan “Prosperity, Your Divine Right.”

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The resume also states that Ferri received a master’s degree from Sonoma State University, and lists such hobbies as reading, bicycling, photography and watching football. Ferri also indicated that he spoke Italian and some Arabic, according to the newspaper.

Among acquaintances in Woodland Hills, Ferri was known to have a hot temper, particularly when things didn’t go his way. But he was also described as generally polite and somewhat withdrawn. He would often leave his Ventura Boulevard office and sit silently in his white Cadillac parked in a nearby lot, acquaintances said.

“He told me that his credit was bad and that he was down on his luck,” said Alexandra Previtire, a senior processor at Unlimited Savings Inc., two doors from Ferri’s office. “He said his credit was bad because he wasn’t getting a lot of business.”

Previtire, who met Ferri several months ago, said that he told her most of his business came from attorneys and that he processed commercial loans. But because business was poor, Ferri was forced to lay off his only employee, she said, and few customers came by his cluttered office.

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Once, Previtire said, Unlimited Savings offered to pay Ferri a commission for any government loans he passed their way, adding that such loans require special processing. But Ferri refused and became “very angry” and was asked to leave their office, she said.

“He was trying to tell us how to run a corporation and he didn’t know what he was talking about. . . . He didn’t know A to Z,” said Donna Schulman, co-owner of Unlimited Savings.

Others at the two-story Woodland Hills building commented on Ferri’s apparent lack of knowledge of the mortgage business.

“Always he would complain that he had no clients and that he didn’t know where to get them,” said Azar Torabi, a mortgage broker and president of Today’s Financial Group, located in the complex.

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Torabi said that Ferri told her he began processing commercial mortgages and then changed to residential mortgages, but he seemed to be struggling in both areas.

“He didn’t have the forms to do mortgages and he didn’t have the personnel to process them,” she said. “This is a very stressful business, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The state Department of Real Estate said Ferri was a licensed broker who had no complaints on his record. He was not a member of the California Assn. of Mortgage Brokers and his company, ADF Mortgage Inc., is not a member of the California Mortgage Bankers Assn. Mirna Valdez, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Mortgage Brokers Assn., said Ferri was not among the 450 members of the Los Angeles chapter of that trade association.

Few people in the local mortgage and real estate business seemed to know Ferri. But other Woodland Hills mortgage brokers expressed shock that financial stress may have triggered Ferri’s rampage.

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“It couldn’t have been the mortgage business because business is good,” said one broker, noting that low interest rates have created a boom in refinancing. “It had to have been something else.”

Stan Weiss, manager of Plaza International, which owns the Ventura Boulevard office complex, said that Ferri had leased the office for about a year. Weiss described him as a good tenant and said there were no indications that Ferri’s business was in trouble.

“He was just a normal person,” Weiss said. “He was very nice and very pleasant.”

Diane Andrews, Ferri’s hairstylist, described him as a caring man who enjoyed driving to Santa Barbara on the weekends to dine on Italian food. Aside from disliking the San Fernando Valley heat, Andrews said, Ferri voiced few complaints.

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Andrews said Ferri was always looking for new clients and once offered to pay her a commission for any new business.

“You wouldn’t expect anything like that (the rampage) from him,” Andrews said. “But I guess that’s what they say about most homicidal maniacs.”

In the last 18 months, Ferri rented an unfurnished one-bedroom unit in the Oakwood Apartments in Woodland Hills, where he lived alone, said Richard Dunne, leasing manager of the 843-unit complex. Until last month, Ferri had been prompt with his $750-a-month rent, Dunne said.

“A few days ago, we put a notice on his door because he was about two weeks late with his rent,” Dunne said. “The notice was just a polite reminder saying, ‘Hey, please pay your rent.’ It wasn’t as if we had planned to evict him or anything.”

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He knew little about Ferri. “It’s a very large complex, so it’s easy to be anonymous,” Dunne said.

Those who knew the heavyset Ferri said he favored white dress shirts, dark slacks and suspenders. Howard Korey, an employee at Regal Cleaners, recalled once misplacing nine of Ferri’s shirts.

“Usually people get upset when something like that happens,” Korey said. “But he was very nice about it . . . nicer than most would have been.”

In Marin County, Ferri attended church and was a member of the local Rotary Club, where members remembered him as slightly introverted but always friendly.

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“He was the least likely guy you can imagine doing something like that,” said San Rafael businessman Scott Deming. “I could not imagine him even having a gun at all.”

Benedetti, Ferri’s former wife, said he was an Italian national who grew up in Ethiopia and was an engineer by training. In a short telephone interview, Benedetti said she had not seen her former husband in more than two decades.

“This is just horrible,” said Benedetti, who lives out of state. “It is astonishing.”

According to authorities in Nevada, Ferri bought two 9-millimeter pistols in Las Vegas this spring. That is the type of weapon used in Thursday’s attack, but police would not say if they were the same guns. Ferri was required by law to wait three days while police conducted a background check before he received the first gun from a pawnshop April 28. He was able to pick up the second gun May 9 from a gun store without waiting, authorities said, because the April background check found no felony arrests.

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“Everything was by the book,” said Majorie Love of the Las Vegas Police Department.


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