Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane

Still a Mystery

EMTs & a victim leave the mall.
EMTs & a victim leave the mall.

It did not take long to learn the shooter's identity.

Many of those who worked at the mall already knew this woman.  Her name was Sylvia Seegrist, 25, and she frequented the place, often harassing customers and scaring them with bizarre monologues. Once she had complained that the colors of the clothing were too bright, making her angry and bringing out the worst in her. People just walked away.

She was from Crum Lynne in Delaware County, and lived within walking distance of the mall. People in her apartment building, too, thought she was strange, the way she raked leaves at night, played loud music, and shouted threats. She had told one woman about a dream she'd had that she was a rubber ball, bouncing around the ceiling, which Seegrist believed was about the way people pushed her around because of her ideas.

By the next day, the incident was in all the papers, most notably The Philadelphia Inquirer, since this mall was in the greater Philadelphia area.

EMTs with victim at ambulance.
EMTs with victim at ambulance.

It was soon learned that a week earlier Seegrist had been trying to get a prescription for tranquilizers filled at the mall drugstore, but the pharmacist had refused to do it because she had not brought her welfare card. Although she returned later that day with her card and got the pills, apparently this refusal had frustrated her and she decided to take some action. In fact, most of the shooting had occurred in the pedestrian area in front of Rite Aid on the ground level.

Her behavior was not unlike that of men who commit workplace violence. Quite often, their idea is to get some form of payback, although many have been suicidal. As the case unfolded, the hints emerged that Seegrist may have hoped for death during the melee, or at least to be executed for it.

In the aftermath, people learned who the victims were. The murdered 2-year-old boy, Recife Cosmen, was from Delaware, and the other fatality, 64-year-old Augusto Ferrara, was from Philadelphia. Dr. Ernest Trout, 67, the man who had been hit three times, was in the worst condition and needed immediate surgery. One of the bullets had entered his brain.

The rest of the wounded were removed to four different area hospitals for treatment.

"There's no rhyme or reason for this," said Captain John McKenna, director of the criminal investigations division of the Delaware County DA's office. He mentioned that Seegrist had a history of aggressive incidents related to mental illness, and called the incident a terrible tragedy over which no one has any control.

Neighbors who knew her said she was consumed by hatred, especially toward children. She dressed in fatigues and berets and often preached angry passages from political propaganda, especially Muslim. She claimed that she wanted to fight as a guerrilla in Iran. One man said, "She had a real spacey look about her." When he heard about the shooting, he immediately envisioned Seegrist as the perpetrator. So did others who knew her.

In newspaper interviews, Laufer 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.

"She wasn't saying anything while she was shooting," he recalled. "She muttered some incomprehensible things when I grabbed her."

After ensuring that she had been subdued, he had used his training as an emergency medical technician to attend to the wounded and assist with their transport.

Laufer was hailed as a hero, receiving letters and calls from around the country, invitations onto television talk shows, and requests for newspaper interviews. Given how many bullets Seegrist had left, people were happy that someone had stopped her so quickly. Laufer was happy to have escaped with his life.