Two Pennsylvania men who officials said wrestled a disgruntled gunman into submission after the man allegedly shot and killed three people at a town supervisors meeting on were hailed as heroes Tuesday as police said the shooting “could have been much worse.”
State police received a call around 7:20 pm on Monday night after a gunman, identified as 59-year-old Rockne Warren Newell by authorities, began firing a Ruger Mini 14 .223 rifle through a window and into the building where about 18 people were gathered for a regular monthly meeting of Ross Township supervisors.
The gunman then approached the doors to the building and began firing into the meeting room, state police said, before he went back to his vehicle to retrieve a .44 Magnum revolver.
At that point, Bernie Kozen — a father and former Little League coach who serves as executive director of the township’s West End Open Space Commission — positioned himself near the door, and tackled the gunman as he reentered the meeting room, according to police.
Gunshots went off as Kozen struggled to restrain the shooter with the help of a second man, identified by police as local resident Mark Kresh.
The victims were identified as David Fleetwood, Gerard Kozic and James LaGuardia, according to a criminal complaint, NBC Philadelphia reported.
Eyewitnesses described the struggle between Kozen and the gunman to local newspaper The Pocono Record.
"I saw Bernie struggling with him. Bernie got the gun and shot him in the leg twice," Ross Township Supervisor Tina Drake told the paper.
Kozen told the Record that he was assisting another man who had been shot when the shooter "walked by me into the meeting room, I guess to shoot more people."
"That's when I came up behind him and wrestled the gun from him," with the help of another man, Kozen told the newspaper.
A reporter for The Pocono Record who was attending the meeting, Chris Reber, told his newspaper that he heard more than 10 shots, and described crawling down a hallway to get out of the building.
"The thing that got my attention: plaster flying out, blowing out through the walls. Witnesses would later tell me they saw pictures exploding away from the walls," Reber wrote in his first-person account. "I heard more than 10 shots. It was automatic, like a string of firecrackers. That's what everyone said."
The action taken by Kozen and Kresh may well have saved lives, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“Two very courageous individuals positioned themselves in a way that they were able to jump on the subject as he came through the door,” Bivens said. “This could have been much worse had we not had the actions of the two individuals who interceded.”
When contacted by the Associated Press late on Monday, Kozen's wife said he wasn't there and she was unsure when he'd be back. Attempts to contact Kozen at his office were not immediately returned on Tuesday.
Kozen took over the Park and Open Space Commission in October of 2007, according to a Pocono Record profile from 2009. A former coach with the local Little League, Kozen told the paper that his priorities were to get kids and other residents out of their houses and into the great outdoors – goals that seem to be in line with Kozen's own active lifestyle.
"I like to go out golfing when I can, but I enjoy youth sports," Kozen told The Pocono Record in 2009. "I like to go, even though my kids have moved on and are not involved with high school sports, to go to the high school sports. I go to football games, basketball games and Little League as well. We're blessed to be in an area near two minor league baseball teams so I try to get down to see the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs and the Scranton Yankees."
Rep. Matt Cartwright said he was "stunned and appalled at the atrocities that claimed the lives of innocent citizens in Ross Township, according to the AP.
"Mr. Kozen is a true hero tonight," Cartwright said in his statement.
Newell, a 59-year-old Ross Township resident, was released from a hospital and was in custody, authorities said.
He had been in a long-running dispute with township officials over the dilapidated condition of his property, state police Capt. Edward Hoke told NBC Philadelphia. The township supervisors voted in February 2012 to take legal action against Newell for violating zoning and sewer regulations, according to NBC Philadelphia.
The Record reported in June that a Monroe County judge ordered him to vacate the property a year ago.
"They have no right to kick me off my property," Newell told the newspaper in June. "They call my property an 'eyesore.' When I bought it, it was one of only three properties on the entire road that didn't have what they call 'junk.'"
Newell set up a fundraising page online and was trying to raise $10,000 to pay for legal fees in his battle with the township, the AP reported.
"Ross township took me to court & the court ruled I have to vacate my home of 20 years," he wrote on the page called SaveRockyshome.. "I live on SSI which comes to $600 a month I have no money to clean it up."
Ross Township has about 5,500 residents and is about 90 miles north of Philadelphia.
NBC News' Azhar Fateh and Jason Cumming, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.