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Police Continue Investigation Of Ambushed Firefighters

6:08 PM, Dec 24, 2012   |    comments
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Webster, NY (Democrat and Chronicle) -- One of the Webster firefighters killed Monday in a gunman's deadly trap was a fixture in local law enforcement, both as a Webster police officer and as the recently named firefighter of the year.

The other was just starting out.

But Lt. Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka - Chiapperini's son's best friend - shared a lifelong passion for the dangerous, important careers they'd chosen, those who knew them said Monday.

Chiapperini, 43, was a volunteer firefighter and the Webster Police Department's public information officer; Kaczowka, 19, was a 911 dispatcher and a veteran of the program for young firefighting hopefuls that Chiapperini led.

William H. Spengler Jr., a 62-year-old Webster man, previously in prison for beating his grandmother to death, started a fire in an apparent effort to lure first responders, officials said. When they arrived at 191 Lake Road around 5:35 a.m., he shot them with a long gun, killing the two men and severely wounding two others.

The injured firefighters, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino, are in guarded condition at Strong Memorial Hospital after suffering severe injuries, according to doctors.

A vigil for the victims will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the West Webster Fire Department station at 1051 Gravel Road.

Spengler was found dead on the beach outside the home where the shootings occurred, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

An off-duty Greece police officer who was driving near the scene was injured by shrapnel.

"These people get up in the middle of the night to fight fires. They don't expect to be shot and killed," Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering said at a news conference just before noon.

Pickering said it appeared the shooter set a trap for first responders, setting the blaze and opening fire when they arrived to extinguish it. He had several weapons, including a rifle that was used to shoot the firefighters.

Spengler served 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother, Rose Spengler, to death with a hammer. He was released in 1998. The killing happened on July 18, 1980, inside 193 Lake Road. At the time, Spengler lived at 191 Lake Road, the home where firefighters were responding Monday when they were shot.

After the fire became a crime scene, firefighters were not able to resume fighting the blaze until roughly 11 a.m., after the shooter had been confirmed dead, Pickering said. In the meantime, six nearby houses also became engulfed in flames and eventually burned to the ground.

Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter said off-duty officer Jon Ritter was on his way to work Monday morning, driving behind a firetruck that was responding to the Lake Road fire. At least two rounds hit his truck, one going through the windshield, the other into his engine block.

Ritter backed out of the area, jumped out of the truck and prevented any other motorists or firefighters from entering the "kill zone," said Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter.

Ritter received minor injuries to his arm and left chest. Baxter said Ritter was being evaluated at an area hospital.

"I'm not aware of anything like this happening in Webster, obviously not a firefighter being fired upon," Webster Fire Marshal Rob Boutillier said.

A Facebook page has been set up for the victims. More than a hundred condolences were left on the West Webster Fire Department's website.

The injured firefighters are Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino. Hofstetter suffered a severe injury to his pelvis. Scardino was shot twice, injuring his shoulder and knee.

"Both have significant injuries and are at this time in guarded condition," said Dr. Nicole Stassen, the trauma physician who is treating them at URMC, adding that both are alert and awake.

Stassen said in a news conference she didn't know how long they would have to be in intensive care and was concerned about the risk of bleeding.

Hofstetter suffered a gunshot wound to the pelvis.

"He has a very bad injury," said Stassen.

The other victim, Ted Scardino, suffered a gunshot wound to the left shoulder, with a bullet going through the upper portion of a lung. He was also hit in the knee.

Stassen would not speculate on what type of weapon was used to caused these injuries. She said neither one is on a ventilator.

Noting the shock of Monday's shootings, Stassen said, "He went to work not expecting anything and now he is in intensive care."

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Pickering spoke through tears about the two men who were killed. Chiapperini's son was Kaczowka's best friend, he said, calling their deaths a "terrible loss." Just two weeks earlier, Chiapperini had been named firefighter of the year.

Spengler, a convicted felon, could not have legally owned a gun, Pickering said. But he had several: a long gun used to shoot the firefighters and a handgun at least, Pickering said.

"We have to get a handle on gun control and mental health issues," Pickering said, adding that Spengler's history indicated obvious mental health problems.

Outside the West Webster Fire Department on Gravel Road, fire district commissioners Pat Morris and Billy Gross described a somber scene inside. At 10:45, the flag outside was lowered to half-staff.

"Each one of the firefighters is comforting each other," Morris said. The Monroe County stress management team is working with the firefighters, the commissioners said, and businesses including Wegmans and Dunkin' Donuts are donating food.

"These firemen are part of our family. You go into a fire with these guys. To see them go down with something like this is totally unexpected. We are in shock," Gross said.

High schoolers from the fire department's Explorer program are also joining the firefighters in grieving.

As trucks from Penfield, Brighton and Union Hill departments stood outside, commissioners said help was coming from all sides.

"Because of the shock and stress inside, you can't expect us to go and fight (another) fire," Gross said.

Around noon, members of the community started stopping by the fire station to drop off small comforts for the firefighters.

One woman pulled up in a truck, paused for a few moments watching the fire house while crying.

Another man dropped off a case of Genesee beer.

Jim DiTomaso, a retired firefighter from Florida, is in town for the holiday visiting his mother who lives on Ridge Road and heard the news.

"I knew I had to do something for them," he said. "They're our brothers."

He dropped off a wreath honoring the fallen firefighters at the station.

Webster resident Emma Allen came by with her son to drop off flowers.

"It kind of hit home, they're such a big part of the community," said Allen, who has several friends who are firefighters. "It's just scary."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement Monday morning.

"New York's first responders are true heroes as they time and again selflessly rush toward danger in order to keep our families and communities safe," Cuomo said. (The full statement is attached to this story.)

Webster resident Michael Damico was among those neighbors who were evacuated.

"The whole strip's been evacuated," Damico said. "They're evacuating all of the houses and going through them."

Damico's son woke him up around 8 a.m. to tell him about the fire that was burning down the street.

"We looked out the window and we saw the SWAT team and everyone around," he said.

"Some people on this bus already watched their houses burn," Damico said. "They're not happy."

U.S. border patrol and New York state police helicopters circled the scene much of the morning.

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