Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Rampage in Camden

The Story Unfolds

Two people believed they had hit Unruh with a bullet -- the tavern owner and a police officer, but only when Unruh got off his chair after hours of questioning did anyone notice the bloodstain.  He had been wounded in his right side but he was uncomplaining throughout the interrogation.  He was sent to Cooper Hospital, the same place where the victims were being treated or placed in the morgue. 

Howard Unruh in custody
Howard Unruh in custody

There he underwent surgery for his own wound, but surgeons were unable to remove the bullet.  That meant they could not determine who had actually shot him.  (While the newspapers offer no answer in later reports, most accounts attribute the hit to Frank Engel.)

Two psychiatrists, Drs. H. E. Yaskin and James Ryan, were assigned to ask Unruh questions while he was still hospitalized at Cooper.  What they learned would be compared with assessments by other professionals later, because it seemed clear that, regardless of his past record, he was destined for psychiatric treatment.  They (along with reporters looking for Unruhs acquaintances) learned more about his background.

Unruh talking to police at hospital
Unruh talking to police at hospital

Unruh was living with his mother, Freda, in a small apartment on River Road.  He had a married younger brother living in Hadden Heights and his father, Samuel Unruh, was alive but estranged from the family.  (Samuel had come to City Hall when hed heard about the shootings.)

Howard Unruh school photo, 1939
Howard Unruh school photo, 1939
Unruh had had an ordinary childhood and seemed to have been a well-behaved boy, although reportedly he was quiet and moody.  He attended the Lutheran church every Sunday and studied the Bible.  When he was of age, he enlisted in the army in 1942 to fight for America during World War II, but most people did not realize that this was not just a patriotic duty for him.  It was also an experience of death that he painstakingly documented.

He took excessive care of his rifle and was a brave soldier as a tank gunner in Italy, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and France, taking part in the relief of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.  Whenever he killed a German, he wrote down the day, hour, and place.  If he actually glimpsed the remains, he described the corpse in some detail, to the point where a fellow soldier who read the tight-lipped, Bible-reading soldiers diary was quite shocked.  Unruh was honorably discharged in 1945. Like many soldiers, he  returned home with medals and a collection of firearms.

He decorated his bedroom in the three-room apartment with military pieces.  Berger writes that on the walls he had crossed pistols, machetes, crossed German bayonets, and photographs of armored artillery in action.  Even his ashtrays were made from German shells.

Unlike other soldiers, he did not try to find a girlfriend and settle down, although for a few weeks prior to his enlistment he had dated a young woman who went to his church but he had ended this relationship by letter from overseas.  After coming home, he mostly remained inside his mothers apartment, rarely going out and becoming increasingly more reclusive.  She supported them both with her income as a packer for a soap company, although Howard had made and sold several model trains.  For three months, he took pharmacy courses at Temple University in Philadelphia, across the river.  He also went to church and attended Bible classes. 

I always thought of Howard as a soft-spoken young man, said the pastor of his Lutheran church.  He came to services regularly before the war.  After the war, he came mornings and evenings regularly for about a year.  About three months ago, he stopped entirely.  The pastors wife called Unruh the mildest type of man you could meet.

Mrs. Pinnar, who had corresponded with Howard when he was overseas, said when he came back he was different.  He always appeared to be very nervous.  He walked very straight on the street, his head rigid, never glancing to the right or left.  She thought he was suffering from war neurosis.

Unruhs brother, James, 25, said that Howard was a born-again Christian who had undergone a deep religious experience and had tried to live by the ways of Christ.  Yet hed become nervous over the past couple of months, according to statements James made to the New York Times.  He just seemed changed.

Another church member who visited him a month after he stopped going to church said that he exhibited strange behavior, believing that people were making things hard for him.  This is precisely what Unruhs mother had been frightened about.

Unruhs primary recreation was collecting guns and target shooting in the basement.  Eventually he stopped going out.  Without a job, he just sat around the house, often thinking about his neighbors.

He kept a list of grudges against them, imagining how he would get his revenge.  He felt that people in the neighborhood were slandering him, talking behind his back.  Next to each offenders name he had recorded that particular persons misdeeds.  Then he had placed the word retal, short for retaliation.  I had been thinking about killing them for some time, Unruh commented. Id have killed a thousand if Id had bullets enough.

Despite Unruhs claim that he had pondered all of this while at the movies, many people believed that the damage he saw to the gate when he came home from the theater was the final straw.  Freda Unruh had sensed that morning that something terrible was going to happen.  As she left the Pinnars home that morning, according to them, she heard gunfire at a distance and went back in, crying, Oh Howard, Howard, theyre to blame for this.  She asked for a phone to call the police, but before she reached it, she fainted. (Some accounts say a doctor revived her and took her to her sisters.  Others say that the Pinnars revived her and she went back out.)

In sum, Howard Unruh appeared to be a quiet man who developed suspicions but kept them to himself, letting them simmer and grow into paranoid delusions.  Now his fate was in the hands of a team of mental health professionals.

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