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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A disgruntled worker, a targeted attack and nine victims

As investigators dig deep into the motive behind this week’s mass shooting in San Jose, a picture has emerged of a targeted attack, a disgruntled and angry gunman and his nine victims.

Witnesses said it seemed like the start of any other day.

Workers at Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority — some leaving their shift and others just arriving — milled about in hallways and meeting rooms about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.

But several of them would never make it home.

“He had a list of people he was going to kill,” said Kirk Bertolet, 64, a 12-year Valley Transportation Authority employee who was on duty at the time of the shooting.

The gunman “cooly walked by some people coming out of the other building,” Bertolet said, before “he walked in that building and found his targets over there. He killed the people he wanted to kill.”

The victims ranged in age from 29 to 63, and were found in two buildings.

A mourner leaves flowers at a memorial for the victims of the shooting in San Jose.

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The nature of the attack appeared deliberate, even methodical, as later reports would show.

“Based on recent developments in the investigation, we can say that the suspect has been a highly disgruntled VTA employee for many years, which may have contributed to why he targeted VTA employees,” Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Deputy Russell Davis said Thursday.

The gunman has been identified as 57-year-old Samuel Cassidy, who had been employed at the transit agency for at least eight years.

Officials said he was armed with three semiautomatic 9-millimeter handguns and 32 high-capacity magazines loaded with additional ammunition.

The nine victims of the shooting at the VTA rail yard in San Jose — top row, from left: Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, Adrian Balleza, Alex Fritch, Jose Dejesus Hernandez III; bottom row, from left: Lars Lane, Paul Megia, Timothy Romo, Michael Rudometkin and Taptejdeep Singh.

(Valley Transportation Authority )

The handguns appear to be legal, officials said, but the magazines, which hold 12 rounds, are illegal in California.

Cassidy’s ex-wife, Cecilia Nelms, told the Associated Press he had talked about killing people at work more than a decade ago.

“I never believed him, and it never happened. Until now,” she said.

Wednesday’s violence, which has been described as a workplace dispute, left the city reeling as the community mourned the victims and demanded answers.

The victims who died at the scene have been identified as Paul Delacruz Megia, 42; Taptejdeep Singh, 36; Adrian Balleza, 29; Jose Dejesus Hernandez III, 35; Timothy Michael Romo, 49; Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40; Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63; and Lars Kepler Lane, 63.

Flags fly at half-staff in Washington to honor the San Jose shooting victims.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

An additional victim, Alex Ward Fritch, 49, died later at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

They were fathers, brothers, sons and friends, and they were mourned by their colleagues as family.

Officials said that they did not exchange gunfire with Cassidy, and that he took his own life when deputies confronted him.

There are other indications the attack was planned.

The first 911 calls came in at 6:34 a.m. Wednesday. Three minutes later, a fire was reported at Cassidy’s home on Angmar Court, eight miles away.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith told NBC’s “Today” show that officials were operating under the assumption that Cassidy acted alone and utilized a device to detonate the fire at his house at a certain time, “probably to coincide with this shooting.”

Bomb-sniffing dogs at the rail yard also found bomb-making materials in what is presumed to be Cassidy’s locker, including detonator cords and the “precursors to an explosive,” according to Smith.

A Department of Homeland Security memo indicated that Cassidy had been detained by U.S. Customs Service in 2016 while returning from Philippines, and had been found to profess “a hatred of his workplace,” as first reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Homeland Security officials Thursday declined to comment on information gathered before the shooting. It is unclear whether the findings from the 2016 search were conveyed to other federal or local agencies at the time.

Though little is publicly available about Cassidy’s interaction with the VTA, sources said he received a stipulated payout in February 2007 after filing a workers’ compensation claim for an injury to his knee suffered on the job.

John Courtney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 — one of four unions that represent VTA workers — said on Facebook that he was shocked and deeply saddened by the news, and that the union was working to provide support and assistance to victims’ families and others affected by the shooting.

Courtney also painted a picture of sometimes stressful working conditions at the agency.

In a news release issued before the shooting, he described tension over the reduction of social distancing guidelines and expressed concerns that workers had not received hazard or hero compensation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bertolet said the VTA is made up of “blue-collar workers” who are often tough on one another.

He said he believed Cassidy snapped because of his perceived treatment on the job.

“He killed his lead and the other people in his chain of command. I guess whatever conflicts, whatever animosity he had toward those people, he took it out on them yesterday,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues felt “helpless and hopeless as we stood there and listened to our co-workers die.”

During a news briefing Thursday, VTA board members and officials expressed shock and sadness.

“Words are not enough to justify the pain we are going through,” said VTA light rail transportation Supt. Naunihal Singh. “I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m lost for words. At the same time I’m trying to find reasons why.”

Singh said it showed the character of his co-workers that they tried to save others during the attack. The family of one victim, Taptejdeep Singh, said he helped fellow workers hide before being shot.

San Jose City Councilman Raul Peralez spoke as both a VTA board member and a friend of one of the victims, Rudometkin.

“Personally, my heart is broken,” Peralez said. “And honestly, it’s going to take a lot of time — not for me, but for all of us — to be able to heal.”

Victims’ support funds have been set up through Working Partnership USA and the Amalgamated Transit Union. The city also organized a vigil for the victims at City Hall plaza on Thursday night.

“This is a moment for us to come together and grieve,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said on Twitter.

Cassidy was known to neighbors as a “very strange, very quiet” guy in his working-class neighborhood, said Ramon Crescini, 64, a retired general contractor who lives several doors down.

He was divorced more than a decade ago. Nelms, his ex-wife, told the Mercury News that he had a mercurial temper and often complained that co-workers and family members had easier lives than he did.

At a news briefing after the shooting, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked when the violence in the nation will stop.

“What the hell’s going on in the United States of America?” Newsom asked. “What the hell’s wrong with us? … When are we going to put down our arms, literally and figuratively?”

Speaking to the “Today” show, Smith expressed similar disbelief.

“What in the world could possibly prompt someone to take this kind of action, we don’t know at this point,” she said.

At Thursday’s news conference, Glenn Hendricks, chairman of the VTA board of directors, solemnly listed the names of the dead.

His voice shook as he described meeting with the victims’ family members, and he pleaded with employees to get help and talk to others if they felt overwhelmed.

“All of the families are in pain, but we are here to help,” he said. “We want all of our employees to know we are all grieving together, and we want to do everything we possibly can to support each other.”

He said he went home Wednesday night and wrote a poem to honor the dead:

Our friends will be missed
Serving riders makes us smile
Nine will inspire us

Times staff writers Hailey-Branson Potts, Lila Seidman and Maura Dolan contributed to this report.

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