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Gunman said he ‘wanted to get back’ at Yountville veterans workers

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YOUNTVILLE — Just days before Albert Wong shot and killed three mental health clinicians at a residential program for traumatized veterans in Yountville, the former Army infantryman told a family member he was angry at the staff members and wanted to get back at them after he was found with knives and told to leave.

With ammunition around his neck and waist and dressed in black, Wong, 36, strode uninvited into a Friday morning office party where Pathway Home staff and resident veterans were gathered on the second floor of their building at the Veterans Home of California campus. Wong, until two weeks ago, had lived there for about a year.

“Whatever happened out there, he didn’t say he was going to shoot anybody,” said Wong’s brother, Tyrone Lampkin. “He said he wanted to get back at them, talk to them, yell at them, not to kill them. He didn’t mention that.”

But minutes after the first 911 call about 10:20 a.m. Friday, Wong shot and killed Pathway Home executive director Christine Loeber, staff therapist Jen Golick and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, a psychologist with the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, who was 6 months pregnant, law enforcement officials said.

Other people in the building managed to flee to safety, some of them perhaps aided by a Napa County sheriff’s deputy who exchanged gunfire with Wong about 10 minutes after the initial 911 call, sheriff’s officials said. Others may have been released by Wong, authorities said.

Eight hours later, Wong was found dead, along with the three victims, leaving investigators with the difficult work of piecing together the motive and timeline of a cold-blooded attack by a decorated Army veteran who turned against the very people who had tried to help him — three women who friends and colleagues said devoted their careers to caring for combat veterans struggling with the trauma of war.

Officials on Saturday disclosed few additional details about the daytime slayings, which have drawn national attention to a normally tranquil and scenic veterans campus, a 600-acre community hub at the edge of town.

“Realize this is a really difficult day,” Yountville Mayor John Dunbar, a longtime Pathway Home board member, told reporters at a news conference Saturday. “I and members of The Pathway Home family, and the Yountville family, lost three beautiful people yesterday.

“We also lost one of our heroes, who clearly had demons that resulted in the terrible tragedy that we all experienced here,” he said.

The CHP-led inquiry into the shooting played out Saturday amid quiet and somber surroundings, with far fewer of the elderly and disabled veterans who live on campus taking walks or riding about in their motorized wheelchairs, residents said.

Though two California veterans home public safety officers were on duty at the time of the shooting, they work unarmed and are trained to a lower standard than a law enforcement officer, and are not equipped to confront the kind of situation that erupted Friday, according to state and local authorities.

Authorities have not said what role, if any, those two officers played as the violence unfolded Friday.

The Napa County Sheriff’s Office, which provides policing service under contract with the city of Yountville, conducts routine patrols of the campus and responded within minutes when the threat arose, Sheriff’s Capt. Steve Blower said.

Vito Imbasciani, secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, bristled Saturday when asked about the level of security during a news conference, though he later conceded the agency would be willing to consider input on the subject.

The California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, which represents the security staff, issued a statement Friday that said its members were ill-equipped to protect such sites without being armed and fully-sworn peace officers.

But Imbasciani criticized “any attempt to maybe even politicize this issue and to point fingers.”

“We frankly are in a period of mourning and solidarity,” he said, adding, “there will be a time and place to investigate all of that.”

Friday’s bloodshed unfolded after Wong, whose Army service included a year in Afghanistan, stormed Madison Hall where Pathway Home operates, interrupting the party for two outgoing staff members. He was known by most if not all of 15 people in the room.

From the first 911 call about 10:20 a.m., a dispatcher told officers of a “possible active shooter” on campus. The armed man had taken three hostages and by 10:22 a.m., the dispatcher said the suspect was possibly “Albert Wong, a 36-year-old male, former resident, has a semi-automatic with a lot of ammo.

“He’s just let three hostages go, we’re still getting further,” according to the radio transmission.

The dispatcher told responding law enforcement Wong was a veteran, had “bullets around his waist and other stuff in his jacket. He was discharged two weeks ago and that’s our description.

“No shots have been fired,” the dispatcher said.

Minutes went by as law enforcement officers raced to the scene.

Ten minutes after the first call, about 10:30 a.m., a deputy burst onto the radio — “Shots fired! Shots!” he shouted.

An alarm sounded in the building, and at 10:37 a.m. the same deputy reported that Wong had been contained in one room on the second floor of the building with south-facing windows.

Scores of heavily armed deputies, police officers and FBI agents at the scene would have no further contact with Wong or his victims. Their bodies were found about 6 p.m., CHP officials said. Authorities have yet to publicly say whether Wong killed himself or died as a result of the gun battle with the deputy.

CHP officials said the deaths likely occurred early in the incident but have not said when Wong killed the women and whether that occurred before or after he encountered the deputy.

They’ve also not detailed the types of guns he carried and used in the assault.

Investigators said a bomb-sniffing dog alerted them to possible explosives linked to his rental car outside the Pathway building. They have not said what role that discovery, if any, played in the hourslong standoff that occurred before the bodies were found in the evening.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, whose district includes the veterans home, said he had been told Wong violated the rules of the Pathway program and proved sufficiently disruptive that he was asked to leave about two weeks ago.

“This is a private nonprofit which has literally demand from hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the country with PTSD,” or post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. “They’ve got to count on everybody working within the program and being able to participate and adhere to the rules and regulations so that they can move forward.”

Imbasciani said the state agency was doing all it could in the wake of the attack to support residents of the veterans campus, as well as the grieving families and friends of the victims.

“Our hearts are heavy for the over 900 veterans that call this place home and for the hundreds of people that work here every day to create a loving, caring environment where veterans in the final years of their lives can live a life of dignity, comfort and safety,” Imbasciani said.

The Pathway Home serves veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who suffer problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, mild-traumatic brain injury, depression and substance abuse issues. It has helped 450 veterans over the past decade, according to the website. The open campus, public events and day and evening trips into the community help traumatized veterans regain some sense of normalcy and comfort amid crowds and busy settings, Dunbar and other officials said.

“It’s a community tragedy in a lot of different ways,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, a longtime supporter of the program and a Vietnam war veteran.

The Pathway Home’s board of directors met Saturday to begin discussions about what happens next for the program and its grieving staff, and for the six clients who remain enrolled and are being temporarily housed elsewhere.

Spokesman Larry Kamer said the organization was grateful to county, state and federal officials for stepping in to help ensure clients did not experience a lapse in critical services.

Meanwhile, residents of the campus were left to make sense of a stark new reality: the horror of another deadly shooting, this time at a refuge for veterans.

“It’s like a ghost town today,” said Martin Epstein, who served abroad in the Navy as an engine man on troop transport detail from 1958 to 1960.

Epstein, a native of San Francisco, and 3½-year resident at the Yountville campus, said the killings had cast a pall over the complex.

“It’s very subdued right now,” he said, sitting outside in his motorized wheelchair just south of where the violence occurred. “I didn’t want to sit in my room today, after sitting all those hours yesterday.”

Chuck Marotta, 93, a World War II veteran, said he was inside the art center Friday morning, working on a model of a roadster race car, when the gunfire erupted. He spent several hours sheltered inside before he and the others were finally escorted out the back of the building and taken to another building on the south end of the complex.

“It was just like a movie,” he said. And he wondered at the time, “Is this really happening?”

Blower, the Napa County sheriff’s captain, said there had been a few tense moments in The Pathway Home’s 10-year history that required an occasional response from the Sheriff’s Office, though nothing as extreme as Friday. Department personnel were aware of the potential for a crisis “in the back of our minds,” he said.

The organization once treated the most severely traumatized veterans, offering intensive therapies and peer-supported programming for people for whom other treatments had simply not worked.

But it was redesigned in 2015 to focus on early intervention for those who had not yet reached crisis point, providing mental and physical health care especially for veterans taking classes at Napa Community College or entering new vocations, representatives said.

The new approach reduces costs because it requires a less specialized level of clinical treatment, Dunbar said. He said the bloodshed Friday represented the first serious incident known to the state.

“Both The Pathway Home and the Veterans Home of California have emergency response plans,” Kamer said, “But in light of yesterday’s tragedy, I imagine everyone will be looking to improve procedures so nothing like this can happen again.”