Busted, he didn’t put up a fight, company officials said. He quietly signed a letter of resignation and was headed for the door when he pulled out a gun and started firing – “cold as ice,” as one survivor described it.
In the end, Thornton killed eight people, injured two, then turned the gun on himself in a rampage Tuesday at Hartford Distributors that union and company officials said they would not have anticipated from someone with no history of complaints or disciplinary problems.
Yet relatives say Thornton, 34, finally cracked after suffering racial harassment in a company where he said he was singled out for being black in a predominantly white work force.
“Everybody’s got a breaking point,” said Joanne Hannah, the mother of Thornton’s longtime girlfriend.
After shooting his co-workers, Thornton hid as police moved in. He called his mother, who tried for 10 minutes to talk him out of killing himself, relatives said.
“He said the company was prejudiced and they pushed him,” said Annette Levine, a cousin of Thornton’s mother. “Those were the last words he told his mom: He loved her and they pushed him over the edge.”
Authorities said they found him dead.
Thornton had said he found a picture of a noose and a racial epithet written on a bathroom wall, said Hannah, of Enfield, whose daughter Kristi had dated Thornton for eight years. Her daughter told her that Thornton’s supervisors told him they would talk to his co-workers.
Brett Hollander, whose family owns the distributorship, denied any racial bias. And a union official said Thornton had not filed a complaint of racism with the union or any government agency.
“I can assure you there has never been any racial discrimination at our company,” Hollander said.
Teamsters official Christopher Roos said, “This is a disgruntled employee who shot a bunch of people.”
Company vice president Steve Hollander told The Associated Press he was stunned by Thornton’s rampage after a meeting in which he calmly agreed to resign instead of being fired:
“He was cool and calm. He didn’t yell. He was cold as ice. He didn’t protest when we were meeting with him to show him the video of him stealing. He didn’t contest it. He didn’t complain. He didn’t argue. He didn’t admit or deny anything. He just agreed to resign. And then he just unexplainably pulled out his gun and started blasting.”
Steve Hollander said he thinks Thornton had guns stashed in his lunch box. The executive said two people standing near him were shot in the head and killed, but he was only grazed in the jaw and the arm.
“He shot at me twice and hit me a couple times,” he said. “By just the grace of God, I don’t know how he missed (killing) me.”
About 50 to 70 people were in the Hartford Distributors warehouse about 10 miles east of Hartford during a shift change when the gunman opened fire, said Brett Hollander, Steve Hollander’s cousin.
“I was on the phone with 911 and then I saw him running outside of my office window, shooting his gun, carrying his lunch box, which must have had his weapons in it,” Steve Hollander said. “It doesn’t seem real to me now, it seems like I’m watching a movie.”
The shooting was over in a matter of minutes. The victims were found all over the complex, and authorities said they didn’t know if Thornton fired randomly or targeted specific people.
Workers had flooded out of the building as police officers raced into it, Manchester police Chief Marc Montminy told the town’s board of directors Tuesday evening.
“Some were hiding in the woods and some were hiding under cars,” he said.
State police found weapons in the suspect’s car, Montminy said, without providing details.
Thornton was not a problem employee and had not had any previous disciplinary issues, said Gregg Adler, a lawyer for the Teamsters Local 1035. He said he was not aware of how much beer Thornton was alleged to have stolen.
Kristi Hannah had been with him Monday night and had no indication he was planning anything violent, her mother said.
Joanne Hannah described Thornton as an easygoing guy who liked to play sports and video games. She said he had a pistol permit and planned to teach her daughter how to use a gun.
Police declined to release the names of those killed.
Among the dead was Bryan Cirigliano, 51, of Newington, president of Teamsters 1035, according to the union. He had been Thornton’s representative at Tuesday’s disciplinary hearing, the union said.
Another victim was Doug Scruton, 56, who had worked at the warehouse for nearly 30 years, said his wife, Mikal O’Brien. Anticipating his upcoming retirement, the couple had recently moved to a retirement home in Middleton, N.H., where he loved to visit the White Mountains and beaches. He stayed with a friend in Connecticut during the week.
“It was part of our plan for him to be able to retire in the place that he loved. But he’s never going to be able to enjoy that now,” she said. “He was just the sweetest, gentlest, kind soul, and I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Bill Ackerman, a 51-year-old warehouseman, also was killed, said his girlfriend, Stephanie Laurin.
“I was like, ‘Where’s Billy, where’s Billy?’ and they said they hadn’t seen him. And then one of his co-workers told me … that he saw the shooter go to where Billy’s room is that he works in,” she said.
Ackerman, who enjoyed playing golf and rooting for the Boston Red Sox, had worked for the company for about 20 years, she said.
The Hartford Courant identified other victims as Victor James, 59, of Windsor; Edwin Kennison Jr., 49, of East Hartford; and Craig Pepin, 50, of South Windsor.
Steve Hollander was treated at Hartford Hospital and released. Another person was being treated there, but the hospital would not comment on the patient’s condition.
It was the nation’s deadliest shooting since 13 people were killed at Fort Hood, Texas, in November. A military psychiatrist is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in that case.
In Connecticut, a state lottery worker in Newington gunned down four supervisors in 1998 before committing suicide, and six people were killed in 1974 in botched robbery at a bakery in New Britain. Two men were convicted of that crime.
The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities said Hartford Distributors has never had any complaints filed against it.
The Hollander family is widely respected in Manchester, said state Rep. Ryan Barry, a lifelong resident. He said the family-owned Hartford Distributors sponsors local sports teams.
“Ten seconds before he started shooting, if you had asked me, does he look like he’s going to react in any way? I would have said no, he seems calm,” Steve Hollander said. “It makes no sense the people he killed. Why would somebody do such a thing? They were his co-workers, they never … harmed him in any way.
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