Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Rampage in Camden


At City Hall, a gaunt Unruh was taken into a private room and questioned for hours by detectives and those who would be involved in prosecuting him.  At all times, he seemed calm, as Berger reported for The New York Times.  Only occasionally excessive brightness of his dark eyes indicated that he was anything other than normal.

Mugshot of Howard Unruh
Mugshot of Howard Unruh
To Camden County Prosecutor Mitchell Cohen he admitted that before going to sleep the previous night he had made up his mind to go on this rampage.  He was willing to offer a shot-by-shot account.  I shot them in the chest first, he explained, and then I aimed for the head.  Although some people were pre-planned targets, a few just got in the way.  About the insurance agent on the pharmacy doorstep, Unruh simply explained, That man didnt act fast enough.  He didnt get out of my way. 

Hed gone out that morning, he admitted, with one bullet in the chamber, 16 loose bullets and two clips of eight, because his neighbors had been making derogatory remarks about my character. 

A check of his records indicated no report of mental illness before, during, or after his Army service.  In fact, he had an exemplary record as a soldier and those who knew him reported that he was not a drinker.  No one knew much then about post-traumatic stress disorder, or even combat fatigue (which they called war neurosis).  Few people knew much about paranoid character disorders or schizophrenia.

Eighteen civilian witnesses were interviewed and most claimed that Unruh had entered the barbershop first, but Unruh insisted it was the shoemaker, with the barbershop second, so his report became the official one.

Between what neighbors said and what Unruh told his questioners (this was in the days before people were told they had the right to remain silent), a narrative about was pieced together.

It was learned that on September 5, the evening before, Unruh was in Philadelphia at the 24-hour Family Theater, where he watched a double feature. One movie was I Cheated the Law, about how a lawyer seeking justice tricks a gangster into confessing to murder.  The other was The Lady Gambles, starring Barbara Stanwyck, about a woman with a gambling addiction who destroys nearly everything in her life.  Unruh sat through both three times, thinking that Barbara Stanwyck was one of his hated neighbors. He left the theater for home at about    3:00 a.m. 

At that time, he discovered that someone had stolen his outside gate.  He and his mothers friend had just installed it that day, because the only other way to get access to the apartment door was through the gate  owned by Rose and Maurice Cohen.  They owned the pharmacy downstairs in the same building and had their residence next door on the same floor as the Unruhs.  Prior to cutting a gateway into the fence, hed had to walk through a weedy lot to get out to the street, or use their gate.  Rose sometimes complained that Howard left the gate standing open, and she and her husband both disliked the loud music that Howard played on the radio late at night.  Their squabbles had led to a threat to revoke his gate privileges.

When I came home last night and found my gate had been taken, Unruh said, I decided to shoot all of them so I would get the right one.

He went to bed angry and got up around 8:00 a.m. to eat a breakfast of fried eggs that his mother had prepared.  She asked him what was wrong but he told her nothing about his plan.  He went into the basement to retrieve some items and came back, going into the living room.  He seemed to go into a trance, according to the statement Mrs. Unruh gave later, and when she probed to find out what was wrong, he spun around and menaced her with a wrench. 

She left the house and went to the home of friends, the Pinnars, to tell them she was afraid that tensions were coming to a head and that her son no longer loved her.  (By some accounts, she had narrowly escaped death by leaving when she did.)  It was Mr. Pinnar who had helped build the gate the day before.  David Everitt claims that Mrs. Unruh had told them she was most afraid of her sons eyes.  Freda Unruh would later tell reporters, he stared at her as if he had no idea who she was.

After she left, Unruh returned to his preparation.  He figured that 9:30 was the time to begin, because most of the stores would be open at that time.  He could shoot everyone who had been talking about him.  He had a German 9-mm. Luger that he had bought for $37.50 at M&H Sporting Goods in Philadelphia, and he had thirty-three rounds of ammunition.  It was enough to do what he had in mind.

At just after nine oclock, he had walked out into the neighborhood, fully armed.

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