Six people were wounded Tuesday morning, including the mayor and two City Council members, after a dismissed recreation department chess coach opened fire with a handgun in a City Hall conference room and was finally shot by police in a terrifying close-quarters gun battle.
Authorities said the suspect, a U.S. postal carrier, entered the room shortly before a scheduled city government meeting at 8 a.m.
The suspect, Joseph Neale, 48, shut the door and began firing at the elected officials with a 9-millimeter handgun. Police responded minutes later, using a crowbar and sledge hammer to force open the door.
Neale, police said, began firing at them and they returned fire through the partially open door.
In the chaos it was unclear whether any of the city officials were struck by police gunfire as officers moved in.
The most seriously injured in the attack was Riverside City Councilman Chuck Beaty, who underwent extensive surgery for wounds to his face and shoulder and was listed in guarded condition afterward.
Riverside Police Sgt. Wally Rice was in stable condition after undergoing surgery for a gunshot wound to his lower abdomen. A second police officer, Scott Borngrebe, escaped injury after a gunshot was deflected by his bullet-proof vest, and a third officer, Chris Manning, received a grazing wound on his hand.
Mayor Ron Loveridge was grazed by gunfire on the shoulder and neck and appeared later at a news conference, where he lauded the quick police response.
Neale also underwent surgery after he was shot by police. The suspect was hospitalized in serious condition after surgery Tuesday evening, authorities said.
Neale, a Riverside resident, "appeared to be a disgruntled employee" who worked as a six-hour-a-week chess coach for the city Parks and Recreation Department from 1986 to 1994, said Riverside Police Chief Jerry Carroll. Neale, who has worked for the U.S. Postal Service since 1989, filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the city after being fired as the organizer and coach at a local community center, where he was known as "the Chessman."
In his lawsuit, Neale complained that he was fired after writing a 57-page manifesto that he sent to city officials and apparently the White House, complaining of oppression against black men.
City officials, court records show, denied that Neale was dismissed for writing the lengthy treatise, but did not disclose why he was fired.
Mayor Loveridge, a recipient of Neale's essay, characterized the shooting as "surrealistic, something you'd see on television or in the movies."
"I'm very glad to be alive," Loveridge said. "This raises questions about the safety of all of us in public office."
He said he thought at one point: "you may not leave that room, that your final testimonial [might be] to be lying on the floor of a small room."
A shaken Councilman Ameal Moore said the confrontation occurred so fast, "it's hard to describe."
He said Neale entered the small, windowless conference room--situated in the corner of a City Hall annex that houses the council meeting chambers--and began shooting.
"I heard two shots before I ducked behind the table with the mayor," Moore said. "All I could see from under the table was that he was shooting at anything that moved."
Within minutes, he said, police stormed the room, but "it seemed like an eternity."
Another City Council member, Laura Pearson, was struck in the hip by a bullet fragment. Councilwoman Terri Thompson was not struck by gunfire but was taken to a nearby hospital for observation.
Police did not say whether any others were in the conference room.
Carroll said the incident occurred just minutes before 8 a.m., when the council members had convened in a side conference room in the council chambers prior to the start of their regular redevelopment agency meeting.
There was no security guard or metal detector at the entrance.
Neale abruptly entered the conference room and, without saying a word, began firing, Carroll said.
After the shots were heard at the nearby City Hall administrative offices, someone called 911 and police ran to the complex from the Police Department, two blocks away.
"The suspect was barricaded," Carroll said. By then, about nine police officers were at the scene and several began to break down the locked door with a crowbar and sledge hammer, Carroll said.
As the door gave way, Neale began shooting at them through the door, they said, and officers returned fire, striking Neale.
Chief Carroll did not address questions about how well the officers could see into the room when they began firing. A department spokesman, Officer Steve Johnson, said later it was unknown whether police gunfire struck any of the council members.
City officials made it clear, however, that they found no fault with the police officers' quick entry into the room.
"I'm not sure I'd be standing here today if it weren't for their decision to come in, to force the door," said Loveridge.
The police chief said his officers' quick action "averted what could have been a terrible disaster."
"The courageous actions by the city's finest helped end a situation that could have had deadly consequences," Carroll said.
Neale is no stranger in the Riverside community, and is characterized by those who know him as a passionate champion for the minority youths on the city's east side, and especially those who hung out at its Stratton Community Center.
In a letter he sent last year to Loveridge and the school board president, he complained that the school system had failed African American children.
In March 1994, while running the chess club, he wrote his 57-page manifesto in which he condemned corporate leaders and local merchants for refusing to "acknowledge black and minority men who act in a responsible manner within their communities."
Among the themes of his rambling letter was to argue against the stereotype that African American males "are irresponsible, inconsistent and unreliable."
Loveridge read the long essay, and wrote Neale back a letter of commendation, lauding him for his efforts in working with the city's youths. He thanked Neale for sharing with him the essay, which he titled, "Observations on Life in America as Seen from the Perspective of an African American Citizen."
Loveridge wrote: "Hopefully, your message of commitment and involvement will spread. One by one, efforts such as yours will change the life of young people in Riverside!"
A month after Loveridge's letter, however, Neale was fired as the chess coach.
Neale has worked at a Fontana post office since 1989, where he was described by co-workers as a punctual, polite and solitary employee. Tuesday was his regularly scheduled day off.
Times staff writers Hugo Martin and Esther Schrader contributed to this story.
MIKE DOWNEY: Riverside is lucky--lucky not to be reeling today from an out-and-out blood bath. A3
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Tracing the Gunman's Path
A disgruntled former employee went on a shooting rampage Tuesday morning at Riverside City Hall, leaving five people wounded before police shot and captured him, police say.
1. Gunman enters council chambers
2. Suspect bursts into boardroom and begins firing at mayor and council members.
3. Police break down door; gunman and two officers shot in exchange of fire*
(Public seating was empty at time of shooting)
* Several officers were involved, two are shown here.
Sources: Riverside Police Department
Note: Graphic not to scale
Researched by BRADY MacDONALD and RAOUL RANOA / Los Angeles Times