Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Female Mass Murderers: Major Cases and Motives

Military Style

On Oct. 30, 1985, as reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, mid-afternoon shoppers at the Springfield Mall outside Philadelphia, Penn., were startled by gunfire.  Outside in the parking lot, a woman shot at several people and then entered the mall, dressed in green military fatigues and a knit cap, and carrying a semiautomatic rifle.  Most of the people who spotted her believed she was part of some Halloween prank, but they were wrong.  Some of them dead wrong.

Near a restaurant's entrance, a 2-year-old child, lay on the ground dying and two children were wounded.  Outside, a number of people had run for cover.  The medium-sized woman aimed directly at shoppers who failed to move fast enough and shot randomly inside several stores.  One person, a 67-year-old man, was hit three times. 

No one stopped the woman as she made her way, muttering to herself, through the pedestrian area.  Several people fell to the floor, some of them bleeding badly.  A woman yelled, "Help my husband, help my husband!"  At that moment, John Laufer, a graduate student, grabbed the shooter. 

"I'm a woman," she said, "and I have family problems, and I have seizures."

Laufer sat her down in a shoe store and told her to remain there.  He then returned with a security guard, who placed the shooter under arrest.  Laufer later said he thought the woman had been firing blanks as a prank.  Just before he had stopped her, she had raised the rifle directly at him.

Sylvia Seegrist
Sylvia Seegrist

The toll that day was two dead and eight wounded.  One of the wounded, a 69-year-old man, would later die, bringing the total deaths from this rampage to three.  Those who worked at the mall knew the woman to be Sylvia Seegrist, who frequented the place, often harassing customers.  By the next day, it was learned that Seegrist had been trying to get a prescription filled at the mall drugstore earlier for tranquilizers, but the pharmacist had refused to do it because she did not have her Welfare card.

At her arraignment, Seegrist indicated that she had expected to die.  Asked her phone number, she rattled off a long string of random numbers.  She also lashed out with the statement that she wished she had never been born, and told the court that the reason for her rampage was trouble with her parents.  Finally she said, "Do you have a black box?  That is my testimony."

There was no doubt that Sylvia Seegrist had a long record of mental illness.  She had been diagnosed at the age of 15 with a mental disorder so serious that she faced a lifetime of drugs or hospitalization.  Since her illness involved a developing hostility and aggression, she quickly alienated family and friends.  That left her lonely as well as disoriented, with no one to help her find her bearings.  She was hospitalized a dozen times and then given drugs.  No professional followed her case, although she saw several different psychiatrists for the medication.

Since she often did not take the drugs appropriately or they did not work well, her delusions and anger worsened.  In the weeks prior to the shooting, people who knew her said that she had been acting "terribly psychotic."  Her mother, Ruth Seegrist, told reporters that Sylvia was "completely out of touch with reality."  She had urged her daughter to commit herself earlier that week, but Seegrist had responded that she'd rather go to prison.

Seegrist was found guilty but mentally ill and given three consecutive life sentences, with a minimum of 10 years each.  Sent to a psychiatric facility for evaluation, she was eventually moved to the state correctional institution at Muncy.

Only two-and-a-half years later, another woman meticulously planned a mass murder-suicide that still defies comprehension.


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