Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane

Bad Day at the Mall

On October 30, 1985, mid-afternoon shoppers at the Springfield Mall outside Philadelphia, were startled by gunfire. It was close to Halloween, and the same day as "mischief night," so at first, it seemed to many that the shooting was merely a prank. 

Outside in the parking lot, someone was firing a gun. A person dressed in olive green military fatigues, a knit cap, and shiny black boots was walking around aiming a semiautomatic rifle at people and pulling the trigger.

Springfield Mall, bullet hole in glass.
Springfield Mall, bullet hole in glass.

Edward Seitz, who became the first target, saw the car from which the .22-caliber rifle was taken, a white Datsun B-210.  He was shot at twice, but though he was only 30 yards away he managed to avoid being hit. Even as the shooter passed by him, he ran to the Datsun and punctured the right front tire with an ice pick to make sure this perpetrator could not get away. Inside on the back seat, he saw a brown rifle case, a pair of fingerless gloves, a newspaper, and a number of spilled bullets. Seitz assumed that his assailant was a man, but he was wrong. This shooter was a woman, and she was striding with purpose toward the mall's entrance.

Next she aimed at a woman getting money from an automated teller machine.  The bullet missed her and the next shot was centered on a man at the mall's front door, but this also missed. Nevertheless, the shooter continued searching for targets.

Sylvia Seegrist in police car, cuffed.
Sylvia Seegrist in police car, cuffed.

Near the Magic Pan restaurant, a child took the first bullet that found its mark and was fatally wounded in his lung and heart. He was only two years old. Two other children were with him and they were hit. A nine-year-old girl was shot in the right cheek and a ten-year-old received a superficial chest wound.

Once it became clear that this military-clad woman was actually trying to harm or kill people, shoppers ducked down or ran for cover.  A few watched as she aimed her rifle and let loose more bullets, just barely missing several scattering onlookers. 

She was young, 20ish, and medium-sized. While workplace violence had gotten some press by that time, those shooters had all been middle-aged, disgruntled males going after co-workers or bosses. Not so this person. People could not comprehend what she was up to.

She went directly into the mall with what seemed to be a sense of purpose.  She aimed at shoppers outside the stores who failed to move fast enough and also shot randomly inside several stores. Her shots shattered a plate glass window at an Oriental furniture store, Pearl of the East. She also shot over the head of a clerk at the Rite Aid drugstore, hitting the ceiling, but passed by a women's clothing store without even looking in. She then shot into a Kinney shoe store.

One man was standing alone in the walkway, deep in thought, and she hit him three times. He dropped to the floor, critically wounded.

No one stopped the woman as she made her way, muttering angrily to herself, through the pedestrian area.  She shot and hit several more people. They fell to the floor, some of them bleeding badly. 

Often she missed, and mostly people were only wounded. Four people lay near one another, and one man shot behind the ear was bleeding badly. His wife, who had run from a store to find him there, screamed for assistance, "Help my husband, help my husband!" She gripped her chest as if in pain.

For those caught in the deadly fire, the rampage seemed to go on and on. One girl had been shot twice in the stomach, one woman was wounded in the back, and another had taken two bullets in the abdomen. Not badly hurt but clearly traumatized, an adolescent girl held her wounded left hand, though her right wrist, too, had been hit.

In truth, the shooting lasted less than four minutes, and it ended rather incongruously.

John Laufer, a 24-year-old graduate student spending time at the mall with a friend, watched the woman walk toward him and at around ten yards away she lifted her gun to take aim. While he assumed she was firing blanks, he thought she should not be doing it, so he grabbed her.

"You picked the wrong person to fool with," he said. "I'm going to turn you in now."

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

Without replying, Laufer guided her into a shoe store 30 yards away and made her sit down in a chair.  People outside in the mall were screaming and running, but he remained calm. He ordered her to sit right where she was while he went in search of a security guard. 

She obeyed him, and the female guard, who had heard the commotion and seen the bleeding people lying around the hall, placed the shooter on the floor and handcuffed her. 

"Why did you do this?" the guard asked. "Why did you shoot these people?"

"My family makes me nervous," was the woman's strange response. She insisted that she had not meant to do it.

The police had been notified and were on their way.

It was estimated that this woman had fired twenty rounds, and the toll that day was two dead and eight wounded. When she was stopped, she had 10 bullets left in one of her clips.

While it was not the worst mass murder on American soil, it was surprising for one factor: never had there been a female behind the gun.

Journalists scrambled to learn everything they could even as this woman was turned over to the police.

Not knowing if she had an accomplice, people were ordered over an intercom to remain in hiding, but once the place was searched, the mall was evacuated and closed for the day.

The shooting was over but the questions about it had just begun.

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