N.Y. gunman wore body armor, police say
Layla Khalil survived the worst of the war in Iraq, dodging death when bombs exploded near her Baghdad bus, escaping again when her home was caught in an insurgent attack and worrying when one of her sons was wounded while working for U.S. forces in the Green Zone.
Whenever her husband or children would suggest she show caution as she went about her day, the intrepid school librarian brushed them off. “No, no, no, if God wants me to die, it will happen,” she told them.
“It’s not that she was so religious,” Baan, her only daughter, said Saturday. “It’s just that she was a fatalist. And, she saw herself as a strong woman. Nothing could stop her.”
But the chestnut-haired Iraqi and 12 other people were shot and killed in a sudden fusillade of gunfire Friday from an assailant who entered the American Civic Assn., a nonprofit center that helps immigrants assimilate in this hardscrabble city.
The gunman, identified by police as Jiverly A. Wong, a 41-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, then shot and killed himself when surrounding streets echoed with sirens as police converged. Four other victims were wounded in his rampage but are expected to survive.
Police say the thin, bespectacled Wong lived with his parents and sister in the nearby blue-collar town of Union, and that he still struggled with English, although he and his family came to America in the early 1990s.
Family members told police that Wong appeared increasingly irritable and distraught in recent weeks. He dropped out of his English class at the civic center in the first week of March, fought angrily with his older sister Nga and, according to police, was fired from his job at a local Shop-Vac facility.
“He was upset because he didn’t have a job,” Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said in an interview. “He felt he was looked down upon, despised even, because he didn’t speak English. And he was depressed.”
Wong liked to exercise and collect guns, and he practiced target shooting at a local range at least once a week. His two guns -- .45-caliber and 9-millimeter Berettas -- were licensed under the name Jiverly Voong, which he used on most legal documents, Zikuski said.
Police forensic experts plan to examine the hard drive of a computer seized at Wong’s home, and the FBI will help prepare a psychological profile, officials said.
He had no local police record, officials said. New York State Police investigated him in 1999 after an informant reported that he was using crack cocaine and planned a bank robbery, Zikuski said. No credible evidence was found to support the claim.
Whatever drove Wong to take his pistols to the American Civic Assn. on Friday may never be known. He left no note, issued no threats and spoke not a word before he opened fire on a packed classroom full of strangers from half a dozen countries.
“Even if we find out why he did this, I’ll never understand why he did this,” Zikuski said.
What’s clear is that Wong was determined to kill -- and perhaps to fight.
He drove his father’s 1993 Toyota Camry to the center and parked the vehicle against the back door as a barricade to stop anyone from escaping. He carried enough extra magazines of ammunition in a bag to kill everyone in the building.
And he wore a bulletproof vest.
That suggested that Wong planned to “take on the police” in urban combat, Zikuski said.
After entering the front door about 10:30 a.m., he shot the two receptionists, killing one.
But the other woman, Shirley DeLucia, 61, wounded in the abdomen, played dead until Wong walked past. She then crawled under a desk and used her cellphone to call 911.
Wong entered the first classroom, meanwhile, and began blazing away, shooting everyone in the room.
That included the substitute teacher, Roberta “Bobbie” King, a bubbly, blond 72-year-old mother of 10 and grandmother of 17, and a fixture in the local Jewish community.
Wong fired more than 32 rounds, police said, and hit most of his victims multiple times. He then shot himself.
“He was a coward,” Zikuski said. “We speculate that he decided to take his own life when he heard the sirens.”
Unsure if a gunman was still lurking inside, or holding hostages, police did not enter the silent building for 39 minutes. They found Wong’s body with the others in the classroom -- and 37 terrified survivors cowering in a boiler room, closets and other spaces.
“When we heard the shooting, my teacher said, ‘Quick, let’s hide,’ ” said Charles Lifrantz, 42, a Haitian immigrant who was in the next classroom. “We found a storage room behind the kitchen. Everyone stayed there very quiet, and I dialed 911.”
News of the slaying hit especially hard in the area’s small, close-knit Vietnamese community, where Wong’s family is well known.
Thanh Huynh, owner of Hang Phat Market, a small store that specializes in Asian groceries, said the Wongs came to America through a program that assisted former South Vietnamese soldiers and political prisoners who were jailed after the Vietnam War ended.
Huynh said that once the family had settled, the elder Wong, named Duong, volunteered to help other Vietnamese immigrants adjust to their new lives. But the son was far less visible.
“Everyone knew of the family, but the son, we had no idea,” he said.
His sister, Hue Huynh, said she saw Wong working out at a local gym two weeks ago.
She said he calmly greeted her and her husband, and seemed untroubled. “When I think back, he just seemed so normal, like he was not capable of doing anything so horrific,” she said. “He was always very respectful to everyone.”
Her husband, Son Quach, said he and Wong worked together in the late 1990s disassembling old computer parts at a local IBM facility. He recalled Wong as a shy man who didn’t easily mix with other Vietnamese on the job.
“Usually when we Vietnamese meet other Vietnamese, we are extremely happy,” Quach said. “But he just said hi and left.”
When they met again at the gym last month, Quach said, Wong told him he was recently laid off and was living on $200 a week in unemployment.
“I asked him if he was doing OK with the money, and he said he was fine,” Quach recalled. Nothing seemed amiss.
Quach said he lay awake Friday night, after the shooting, replaying the conversation in his head. “I kept asking, ‘Why?’ ” he said. “I could not find an answer. The people he killed were not his enemies. They did not even know him.”
He certainly didn’t know Layla Khalil, the 56-year-old librarian from Baghdad.
On Saturday, her family -- husband Samir, 63, daughter Baan, 29, and son Mustafa, 17 -- recalled her almost stubborn optimism and her dream of a peaceful life in America after the family finally fled Baghdad for Jordan as the violence raged in 2006.
Baan, a literature student, had won a Fulbright scholarship to attend the State University of New York in Binghamton. She wrote her thesis on the literature of the diaspora of the Middle East.
When U.S. officials granted refugee status to the rest of the family last year, they left Jordan and followed Baan to the rural reaches of central New York state.
“This is why we chose this place,” said Samir, a retired professor. He looked out at leaden skies and a cold driving rain in the courtyard behind their apartment complex.
“It was supposed to be this quiet, safe, no killing, nothing,” Samir said. “It was supposed to be . . . " His voice trailed off.
When the family arrived in August, someone from the American Civic Assn. met them at the airport and drove them directly to a subsidized housing complex for refugees.
Their neighbors were Iraqi Kurds and Muslims from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia, many also survivors of bloodshed and brutality in their homelands.
The first-floor apartment was grim compared with their Iraqi home. But Khalil persisted in trying to make it livable, scrubbing the bathroom repeatedly and finding furniture for the living room.
The civic association became a second home of sorts. She attended hours and hours of classes to improve her English. Plus she loved socializing with the other women, and befriending the teachers. She told friends that she planned to get a driver’s license.
She loved to feed people, but no one more than her tall, lanky teenager, Mustafa. His dark eyes pooling with tears, he explained how his mother would fix him a meal day or night. Friends say he wouldn’t eat if it wasn’t her food.
Digging his cellphone out of his jeans, he showed a photo of himself and his mother taken in December for senior picture day at his high school.
He has his arm draped around her, and she is smiling broadly. Later, she posed for another photo after donning her son’s cap and gown. Again, she flashed that almost girlish smile.