WILKINSBURG, Pa. — A long-running dispute over a broken door escalated into a racially-motivated shooting rampage in Wilkinsburg on March 1, 2000.
Ronald Taylor, 39, a man suffering from schizophrenia, became enraged and told two maintenance workers they were “dirty white trash” and “racist white pig.” When the workers left, Taylor was still raging and set fire to his apartment before hunting them down in the building’s basement. Unable to find the worker he was looking for, he turned on another, John Kroll, 55, and shot him in the neck while sparing his black colleague. Taylor then left, disappearing down Penn Avenue.
9-1-1 calls were already coming in for the fire in the apartment, around 11:15 that morning, when Taylor went in pursuit of the next innocent person. Initial police radio traffic indicated that Taylor was still at the scene of the fire, confusing first responders who couldn’t confirm that.
Meanwhile, Joseph Healy, a 71-year-old retired priest from Duquesne University was down the street at Burger King. Known as “Storytelling Joe,” he read to children every day until Taylor, without a word, shot him in the back of the head while he sat in a booth.
Waiting at the next-door McDonald’s drive-through window, University of Pittsburgh physics student Emil Sanielevici, 20, was shot next. He died of his injuries later. The university would later establish a scholarship in his name.
Steven Bostard, 26, a manager at McDonald’s, was shot in the face, but survived. Another man, Richard Clinger, was shot as he sat in his van in the parking lot with his daughter. Clinger also survived, but with lifelong brain injuries and paralysis on his right side.
Still seething and pursued by the massive police response to 911 calls now coming in from the fast food restaurants, Taylor briefly seeks refuge in an apartment, assuring the black resident that he is only targeting white people. As he leaves, he is spotted by police, who don’t realize he’s the gunman until he turns and shoots at them before entering a medical office.
Barricading himself in the Penn West Building, Taylor took five more white people hostage in the office of a senior hospice center. Witnesses would later tell police that Taylor told the hostages he had one more bullet left, but didn’t know which hostage to use it on.
Upstairs from the office was a day care center full of children, which were evacuated along with other workers, as the scene unfolded in front of TV cameras and police cordoned off a nearly two-block area. Officers emptied the building around Taylor of approximately 125 people, which included the safe evacuation of 37 children from the day care.
Taylor raged at police during a tense two-hour standoff, complaining about his mistreatment at the hands of racists. He asked for cigarettes and water, which negotiators provided as they talked to him. They later reported that Taylor considered taking his own life but was concerned about how his mother would handle it, before he was finally convinced to surrender.
Just before 2 p.m., police radios crackled with word that Taylor had been taken into custody without further violence.
During later searches of Taylor’s burned out apartment, police found a suicide note and hateful misspelled rants about the effects of him mental illness and the poor care he received from the mental health system.
Among the writings was a note titled “The Satan List” that had a list of targets including businesses and people. Taylor’s landlord believes he left the building in search of her nearby offices, but became distracted when he started shooting at the fast food restaurants.
The .22 revolver Taylor used was purchased from a Wilkinsburg gun shop in 1982 and he stole from his mother.
Taylor had no previous criminal record, no known income, and had been living on Social Security for at least the prior three years while he underwent psychiatric treatment. Neighbors described him as quiet, said he had no family around and few visitors.
As Taylor was walked to jail, he made jokes at reporters and winked at the television cameras that surrounded him.
During subsequent court appearances, Taylor remained emotionless and appeared to count on his fingers throughout the trial.
On Nov. 9, 2001, Taylor was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death two days later. He remains imprisoned at SCI Greene near Waynesburg.
In the wake of the shooting, President Bill Clinton led a crescendo of calls to limit access to guns, saying, “We simply haven’t done everything we can do to keep guns away from criminals and children."
Unfortunately, Taylor’s violence was just a harbinger of things to come that spring when, eight weeks later, another mentally-ill gunman targeted victims in Pittsburgh by their race and religion.
Richard Baumhammers walked to his next-door neighbor’s house with his handgun on April 28 and began a killing spree that would was also racially motivated and only interrupted so he could paint swastikas on a synagogue. He killed five that day and a sixth victim would die from complications from his injuries in 2007.
The city was sent reeling from the dramatic hate-driven shooting rampages that thrust it into the national spotlight twice in such close proximity and for such inexplicable reasons.
Pittsburgh would again find itself instigating the conversation on gun control and hate crimes when the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting left 11 dead on Oct. 27, 2018.