Air Force Ousted Gunman Over Emotional Problems : Tragedy: Officials and acquaintances reconstruct events that culminated in fatal attack on staff and patients at a base hospital in Washington state.
Memories of the clean-cut young man who checked out of Room 102 on Monday will always remind Arnold’s Motel manager Marlene Anderson that it is what you do not see in people that can pose the greatest threat.
Dean A. Mellberg, 20, was calm, even pleasant, Anderson said, when she upbraided him for being late in paying his bill and checking out that day.
What she could not know was that Mellberg, an Air Force mechanic discharged last month after repeated diagnoses of emotional problems during two years of service, was on a homicidal mission that would end an hour later with five dead and 23 wounded at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.
“I fussed at him because he hadn’t paid up and was still hanging around,” Anderson recalled Tuesday. “But he was very polite, soft-spoken, nice, apologetic. He said, ‘OK, OK, I’m leaving.’ ”
Within a few minutes, Mellberg paid his $34 bill and was seated on a curb, with a large gym bag at his side. Protruding from the satchel was a white foam case wrapped with black tape. When he saw a taxi pull up to the curb, Anderson said, Mellberg’s face broke into a “beautiful smile.”
The driver took Mellberg 10 miles west of town to the Fairchild base hospital, which sits just outside an eight-foot-high security fence ringing the military installation.
Mellberg paid the cabbie and went into the hospital’s annex, said base and local law enforcement officials who pieced together his actions that fateful afternoon.
Once inside, Mellberg, who was dressed completely in black from his T-shirt to his sneakers, ducked into a bathroom. There, officials said, he unwrapped the box, baring a Chinese-made MAK-90 semiautomatic assault rifle that he had bought from a Spokane gun dealer five days earlier.
Then, just after 3 p.m., he strode into the office of base psychiatrist Maj. Thomas Brigham, one of at least two Air Force mental health experts who had recommended Mellberg’s discharge since his enlistment in June, 1992. Mellberg opened fire with the weapon, which was equipped with a 75-round drum. Brigham was fatally wounded, along with his office mate, psychologist Alan London.
“He knew where he was going; he went directly to that office,” Spokane County Undersheriff John Goldman said.
Mellberg turned and marched down the building’s halls and corridors, randomly spraying bullets, cutting down anyone else who got in the way.
A third person, 8-year-old Christine McCaren, was killed when Mellberg shot up the hospital cafeteria. A fourth, Anita Linder, a patient whose age was not available, was killed outside the hospital as Mellberg left the building.
One of the many military patrol officers who raced to the scene shot and killed Mellberg as he stood on a grassy divider in the hospital parking lot.
Eight of the wounded remained in critical condition on Tuesday, including a 4-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl whose names were withheld.
Anderson was watching that scene unfold on television when police arrived at the motel wanting to search Mellberg’s room, which had already been cleaned. They asked to look at any trash that he might have left. Anderson produced two small plastic wrappers and a plastic bag.
They were inspecting that litter when Anderson’s telephone rang. It was Mellberg’s parents, Gary and Lois, calling from his home in Lansing, Mich.
Anderson said she had bad news for them.
At first, Lois Mellberg thought that her son was one of the victims of the assault. “She went hysterical, screaming, ‘Tell me he wasn’t one of them!’ ” Anderson said.
Anderson did that, adding that Mellberg was the main suspect in the shootings. His mother cried even harder. “If you only knew the horrible things that (Fairchild) did to that boy. He wouldn’t hurt a flea!”
At Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane late Monday night, Father Luz Flores was among 10 military chaplains called in to counsel grieving friends and relatives.
“I talked to the husband of a woman who was shot, and their little kid,” Flores said. “The little kid wanted me to tell his mom that he loved her. You see, he was with her when she was shot.”
The relatives of other victims he talked to were either “kind of stoic, with their lips quivering,” or “generally angry” at the person who had done this.
Anderson was angry with herself for not seeing the flaws beneath the surface of the man who spent five quiet days at her motel.
“With other people we get in here, in their appearance and demeanor you might expect it,” she said, shaking her head behind the counter of the cramped motel office. “But not this fellow. He looked like a happy person.”
Licensed gun dealer Michael Carroll also misjudged the man.
Speaking from behind the screen door of his home in central Spokane, Carroll said Mellberg was referred by a mutual friend at the base when he came by wanting to pay cash for a MAK-90.
Carroll said he asked Mellberg what he planned to do with that particular gun.
“He said he wanted it for target plinking and maybe hunting,” Carroll recalled. “It didn’t seem unusual to me. He seemed confident and personable.”
“I did things by the book, did everything right,” Carroll said. “The problem was with him.”
Brigham’s recommendation for discharge was not the first time that Mellberg’s behavior had come to the attention of Air Force mental health officials.
Within one month of joining the Air Force on June 30, 1992, a staff psychiatrist at Texas’ Lackland Air Force Base recommended his discharge for “having some problems adjusting and getting along in basic training,” said Robert MacNaughton, spokesman for the San Antonio base.
Mellberg’s mother told the Seattle Times on Tuesday that her son’s problems were in part the result of ill treatment by other airmen at Fairchild. “They put out rumors he was gay . . . they stole chairs from inside his room . . . they flattened the tires on his bike,” Lois Mellberg said.
Mellberg was formally separated from the Air Force on May 23, receiving an honorable discharge, which he had fought unsuccessfully.
Conner reported from Spokane and Sahagun from Denver. Times researcher Ann Rovin in Denver contributed to this story.