GOLETA, Calif. — A former postal worker who had been put on medical leave for psychological problems shot five people to death at a huge mail-processing center and then killed herself in what was believed to be the nation’s deadliest workplace shooting ever carried out by a woman.
The attack Monday night was also the biggest bloodbath at a U.S. postal installation since a massacre 20 years ago helped give rise to the term “going postal.”
Investigators would not discuss a motive for the attack.
The rampage — the nation’s first deadly postal shooting in nearly eight years — sent employees running from the sprawling Southern California complex and prompted authorities to warn nearby residents to stay indoors as they searched for the killer.
The 44-year-old woman, identified as Jennifer Sanmarco of Grants, N.M., had not worked at the plant for more than two years but still managed to get inside the fenced and guarded Santa Barbara Processing and Distribution Center. She drove through a gate by following closely behind another car, then got in the front door by taking an employee’s electronic identification badge at gunpoint, authorities said. The employee was not hurt, authorities said.
She opened fire with a 9mm handgun, reloading at least once during the rampage, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Anderson said.
Authorities found two people dead outside the plant, blocks from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Another body was just outside the door, and a wounded woman was just inside. Three more bodies — including that of the killer — were farther inside.
The wounded woman, Charlotte Colton, 44, was hospitalized in critical condition. She had been shot in the head.
All of the killer’s victims were believed to be employees at the postal center.
Postal Inspector Randy DeGasperin said the woman had been placed on medical leave in 2003 for psychological reasons. He said she had been removed from the building by sheriff’s deputies that year for acting strangely. She made no threats, but other workers were afraid she might hurt herself, authorities said.
DeGasperin said was unclear if she targeted certain people or fired at random, but “chances are she might have known her victims.”
The sheriff said the woman’s hair had been cut, and her appearance was different from when she worked at the plant. Her electronic pass card had been taken away when she stopped working at the facility, he said.
The woman was well-known to authorities in New Mexico. Last spring, the clerk’s office in tiny Milan, N.M., filed a complaint with police that she was harassing a worker. In the nearby community of Grants, where she lived, the woman was given a warning after police received complaints that she was nude at a gas station.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on homicides, said the death toll might be the highest ever for any workplace shooting carried out by a woman.
“Men, more than women, tend to view their self-worth by what they do” at work, Fox said. Men also appear more prone to use violence in seeking revenge while “women tend to view murder as a last resort,” he said.
As the shooting began, some of the 80 or so workers streamed out of the building. Some ran to a firehouse.
“I was dumping mail on a belt when the gunshots suddenly ‘boom, boom, boom, boom!”’ said postal worker Alger Busante, 56. He rushed out of the building.
“It is really very shocking. This is a peaceful place,” Busante said.
Postal employee Charles Kronick told KEYT-TV in Santa Barbara that he was inside the building when he heard shots. “I heard something that sounded like a pop, and then I heard a couple seconds later, another pop, pop, pop,” Kronick said.
Kronick said his boss came running over and told him to get out of the building, and “we all hightailed it out real quick.”
The dead were identified as Ze Fairchild, 37, Maleka Higgins, 28, Nicola Grant, 42, Guadalupe Swartz, 52, and Dexter Shannon, 57.
Postmaster General John E. Potter said counselors would be available to the families and employees. “Our heartfelt prayers and condolences go out to the families of the victims and to our employees who have suffered through this tragic incident,” he said in a statement issued in Washington.
Deadliest workplace shooting since 2003
It was the deadliest shooting at any U.S. workplace since 2003, when 48-year-old Doug Williams gunned down 14 co-workers, killing six, and then committed suicide at a Lockheed Martin aircraft parts plant in Meridian, Miss.
It also was the bloodiest rampage at a U.S. postal installation since 1986, when a mailman killed 14 people in Edmond, Okla., and then took his own life. Postal installations were hit with a string of deadly shootings in the mid-1980s and early ’90s.
The nation’s last postal shooting was in 1998, when a 27-year-old letter carrier fatally shot a post office clerk in Dallas after they argued in a break room. The gunman was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.
About 300 people are employed at the Goleta plant, situated about a mile from the ocean, with the mountains as a backdrop. But most of the employees were not on duty at the time of the shooting. Goleta (pronounced goh-LEE-tuh) is about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Employees were told to report Tuesday to another processing center in nearby Oxnard.
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