Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane

History of Illness

There was no doubt that Sylvia Seegrist had a long record of mental illness. She had been diagnosed at the age of 15, ten years earlier, as a person with a mental disorder so serious that she faced a lifetime of drugs or hospitalization, or both. Since her illness involved a developing hostility and aggression from paranoid delusions, 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 over and over and then given drugs. No one professional followed her case, although she saw several different psychiatrists for the medication. When she got out into the community, she could not hold a job very long, so she had difficulty supporting herself.

Seegrist had a long history of threatening people, and the police knew her quite well from all the complaints about her behavior.

Two Ruger 10/22 with rotary magazines; similar to the weapon used by Sylvia Seegrist.
Two Ruger 10/22 with rotary magazines; similar
to the weapon used by Sylvia Seegrist.
Since she often did not take the drugs appropriately or they did not work well, over time her delusions and anger worsened. In the weeks prior to the shooting, people who knew her said that she had been acting "terribly psychotic." Trying to enlist in the Army in December 1984, she had been discharged from boot camp two months later over her behavioral problems. She did not take it well. For some reason, she seemed to identify strongly with the forces of war and military might.

People in the area were long familiar with her eccentric character. She often dressed in army fatigues and at the mall, she went in and out of the stores, harassing customers. She also showed up in a local health club, fully dressed in her fatigues to work out—even sitting fully dressed in the spa. She could be found in a local library muttering to herself or trying for hours at a stretch to translate books about bombs into Russian by using a Russian dictionary. She was obsessed with the idea of "negative energy." 

In retrospect, people were amazed that Seegrist had managed to acquire a Ruger semiautomatic .22 caliber rifle in her dangerous state of mind, but she did. She had initially tried purchasing it at a local K-Mart, but store employees had sensed something wrong and lied to her about not having one in stock. 

"It looked like she was ready to go into battle," said the store manager to reporters. "Two clerks on that day both felt she was kind of weird. It was more like just a gut feeling."

She left a deposit to wait on the shipment, but when she returned they said that the ATF had turned down her application. She took her $20 and left.

A week later, she went to the sporting goods counter at Best Products and after saying on a form that she did not have a history of mental illness (which they were not required by law to check), she got her weapon for $107. She had taken shooting lessons, so she already knew how to use it.

Before the October 30 massacre, Seegrist had actually gone to the mall in the morning, but then had left. She turned up at Living Well Fitness center to work out for half an hour, speaking to no one but clearly appearing to be angry. From there, she went to the library and asked how many books she could check out at once, but did not take any and did not stay. She shopped at a party store for Halloween goods, coming across to the clerk as so hostile that she frightened the woman, and by mid-afternoon, she was back at the Springfield Mall, armed and ready.

At a closed hearing at the Mayview State Hospital near Pittsburgh, Seegrist's commitment order was extended for psychiatric evaluation and her preliminary hearing postponed indefinitely.