Binghamton, N.Y., mass shooting leaves some dead
For immigrants in chilly Binghamton, the doorway to America opens through the friendly building on Front Street. But Friday, the American Civic Assn. -- a place crowded with recent arrivals taking English classes and citizenship exams -- became a killing zone.
A gunman barricaded the back door of the immigration services center with a car, thwarting escape, then entered through the front door. Opening fire, he killed 13 people and seriously wounded four others before apparently committing suicide.
Binghamton Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said the gunman gave no warning. “I don’t think there was any conversation,” he said.
As the gunman entered the building, he killed one receptionist and shot another in the stomach. She pretended to be dead, hiding under a table and waiting for a chance to call 911, while he moved down the hall. In a nearby room he opened fire on a group taking a citizenship class.
Police arrived less than two minutes after receiving the receptionist’s call at 10:31 a.m., Zikuski said. Amid the carnage, they found a body believed to be the shooter’s, along with two handguns, body armor, ammunition and a magazine. He apparently shot himself.
“We have no idea what the motive is,” Zikuski said, but added that the shooter was “no stranger to the Civic Assn.”
An anonymous law enforcement source told the Associated Press that the gunman had an identification card that said he was Jiverly Voong, 42. Authorities searched his home in nearby Johnson City on Friday and confiscated computer hard drives, a rifle case and luggage.
A second law enforcement official said the two handguns found with the body were registered to Jiverly Wong, another name the man used. He once lived in Southern California.
Paulus Lukas, human resources manager for Kikka Sushi in Inglewood, said Jiverly Wong worked for the company as a deliveryman for nearly seven years, until July 2007. Kikka Sushi is a caterer serving supermarkets and corporate and school cafeterias.
Wong was a good worker, Lukas said, but quiet. It was only in talking to co-workers Friday afternoon, Lukas said, that he learned Wong was Vietnamese.
When the staff at Kikka heard about the shootings, Lukas said, “we didn’t really think this person could do such a thing. He was really good at doing his job -- we respected him for that. He’s never late, he’s always punctual. And when he finishes his job, he goes home. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t argue with people. He gets along.”
The only blemish he could recall was that Wong sometimes drove the company van too fast. But after being reprimanded, Lukas said, he improved his driving.
He said that Wong earned $9 an hour by the end of his employment, and that he never formally quit but just failed to show up for work one day, leaving co-workers speculating about what might have happened. In early 2008, Lukas said, Wong called to ask that his W-2 forms be sent to an address in New York state.
Binghamton Mayor Matthew Ryan, who described Friday as “the most tragic day in Binghamton history,” said the gunman reportedly had been laid off from his job nearby at IBM. “I believe he was trying to get assistance [at the center] for obtaining employment,” Ryan said.
“The word was he lost his job and was pretty distraught. . . . If the story checks out, it’s obvious that he was very concerned about being unemployed and not dealing with it well.”
An IBM employee said Jiverly Wong did not work at IBM.
After the shooting, the SWAT team removed 37 people from the building, four of them critically injured; 26 of them had taken shelter in a boiler room. Many were immigrants who spoke little or no English.
As officers sought to determine who might be a shooter, they led some people from the building in flex cuffs, but they were ruled out as suspects, authorities said.
Binghamton is a town of about 46,000 people, located at the junction of two rivers some 140 miles northwest of Manhattan. Ryan described it as “a very proud city,” with 30 languages spoken at local schools and a long history of welcoming immigrants -- from Europe in the past and from Asia more recently. About 1 person in 4 is nonwhite, according to a demographic estimate.
The city’s main street features old four-story brick buildings in the classic style of the industrial Northeast, with a sprinkling of ethnic restaurants and food marts and a nearby Martin Luther King memorial promenade. The Binghamton area is the birthplace of IBM, which has suffered job cuts in recent years.
“We really celebrate all the cultures here,” Ryan said. “Because there has always been a strong immigrant population here, I just think it’s been somewhat of a natural fit.”
New York Gov. David Paterson noted that Friday’s violence followed other mass gun slayings in the last month. He cited the case of a man who fatally shot 10 people in Alabama before killing himself, and the Oakland slayings of four police officers.
“When are we going to be able to curb the kind of violence that is so fraught and so rapid that we can’t even keep track of the incidents?” the governor said.
President Obama issued this statement: “Michelle and I were shocked and deeply saddened to learn about the act of senseless violence in Binghamton, N.Y., today. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their families and the people of Binghamton. We don’t yet know all the facts, but my administration is actively monitoring the situation and the vice president is in touch with Gov. Paterson and local officials to track developments.”
The shooting resonated with groups that work with immigrants in Los Angeles and around the nation.
“Everyone who works with the immigrant community is heartbroken,” said Judy London, directing attorney of the immigrant rights project at Public Counsel in Los Angeles. “Any time a tragedy happens in a workplace that is similar to yours, it hits close to home.”
Ali Noorani -- executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group in Washington, D.C. -- said he urged people to resist using the shooting for political purposes in the immigration debate. Any workplace shooting is horrific, he said, but this was especially tragic because it occurred at a place that gives hope to newcomers to the country.
“This is truly an American tragedy in that these were people who were looking to become the newest of our American communities,” Noorani said. “So many people come to this country fleeing persecution or violence, and here they were studying to become citizens -- only to become victims of violence.”
Ryan said a family center had been set up in Binghamton where people could find out about relatives.
“By process of elimination, families are probably starting to realize they lost a loved one,” he said.
The mayor called the American Civic Assn. “a mainstay of our community.” The group assists immigrants and refugees with resettlement, citizenship, family reunification, interpretation and translation. Many of its clients have fled war and conflict in other countries and have been working to build new lives in the U.S., according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a network of organizations serving immigrants and refugees.
The network said the Binghamton group was one of its partner agencies. The network issued a statement saying that it was “shocked and saddened by the shooting” and announcing that it had established a fund to help the community.
“Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the Binghamton community,” the statement said. “We know the entire community of Binghamton will rally around the American Civic Assn., the people it serves and, in particular, the victims and their families.”
Every pew was filled Friday evening at a candlelight vigil for the victims at Redeemer Lutheran Church.
Among those in attendance was Greg Jenkins, a disaster coordinator for the Broome County Council of Churches, who said the area had a long history of welcoming immigrants -- Asians, Italians, Poles, Bosnians.
The victims “were trying to do it the right way, becoming American citizens,” he said, shaking his head as he gripped a candle.
Kasim Kopuz, an imam who runs the mosque in Johnson City, said the missing included a 56-year-old Iraqi woman and a Pakistani woman in her 20s, both of whom attended English classes at the immigrant service center.
Times staff writers Christopher Goffard and Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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