West Nickel Mines Amish School

Police investigators gather outside the West Nickel Mines Amish School, in Pennsylvania, where Charles Carl Roberts IV shot 11 girls before killing himself. (Sun photo by John Makely / October 2, 2006)

Agunman carrying 600 rounds of ammunition burst into a one-room Amish schoolhouse yesterday, ordered out the boys and several women, bound the girls and shot 11 of them execution-style, killing at least four.

Then the gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, took his own life as Pennsylvania State Police approached the school, where he had barricaded himself.

The violence, unprecedented in Lancaster County's Pennsylvania Dutch Country, brought police cruisers to roads usually traveled by horse-drawn buggies, news helicopters circling overhead, and armed officers to emerald fields where they searched for dead or injured children.

A 10-year-old girl escaped unscathed by slipping out of a window as the boys fled, according to her family.

Police said Roberts, a 32-year-old milk truck driver, walked his three children to the bus stop earlier in the morning. Then he drove to the school shortly after 10 a.m., his borrowed pickup truck loaded with three guns, two knives, a stun gun and ammunition, as well as a change of clothes, building tools and lumber for a barricade.

After blocking the door with two-by-fours he attached to the frame, he bound the girls' feet with wire or plastic ties, lined them up against the blackboard, and then shot them, one by one, with a semiautomatic pistol.

'Still in shock'
"Most of the people I've seen or talked to are still in shock," said Elmer Kauffman, a 33-year-old Amish man whose 8-year-old niece was shot by Roberts and was recovering from wounds after being flown by helicopter to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "It just hasn't registered. I never thought that something like this would happen here."

Police investigating the case said Roberts left suicide notes and called his wife, Marie, just before he began shooting to tell her that he wouldn't be coming home. Authorities believe Roberts, who was not Amish, was seeking revenge for something that happened several decades ago and that he intentionally targeted girls, said state police Commissioner Jeffrey B. Miller.

"He was angry, he was angry with life, he was angry with God," said Miller. Investigators were looking into past incidents that might have triggered Roberts' onslaught, including the death of one of his children several years ago.

Roberts bought the firearms - a 30.06 Ruger rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9 mm Springfield semiautomatic pistol - at a gunshop within five miles of his home, police said.

Two of the girls died at the scene, one in the arms of a state trooper. The other nine girls were transported to area hospitals, and one was pronounced dead upon arrival.

A 13-year-old girl who was in surgery at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for more than four hours was upgraded last night to serious condition, said hospital spokesman Sean Young. She said the girl had had "nonverbal communication" with her family.

An 8-year-old girl was treated at the hospital's shock trauma center, Young said. She and a 6-year- old girl were in critical condition yesterday evening. The grandfather of the 6-year-old asked that people of all faiths pray for the children, Young said.

One of the girls at Hershey died last night, Miller said.

The state of Maryland sent a helicopter to transport the wounded from the site of the shootings, about 25 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The girls' injuries were described as "grave," and most had been shot in the head at point-blank range, Miller said.

"It would be a miracle if there was no further loss of life," he said.

The names of the girls had not been released last night, and authorities were still working with Amish families, who do not take photographs of their children, to confirm the identities of the dead and wounded.

Police said they had offered to fly the victims' families to hospitals in Philadelphia and Delaware, but that their religious beliefs prevented them from flying. Instead, ground transport was being arranged.

The shootings - and then the emergency workers, police and reporters who followed - broke the usual quiet of this farming community shared by Amish and Mennonites.

Barefoot boys and young men on foot-powered scooters darted around black, horse-drawn buggies on the asphalt roads. The Nickel Mine Coach Shop, with wagon wheels lined up along its front wall, advertised a used carriage for sale.

In the distance, cows and horses grazed in green fields dotted with red silos. White sheets and black trousers hung yesterday from clotheslines strung between sturdy wooden houses. Several yards had wooden chicken coops; one held a series of elevated beehives.

Yesterday afternoon, three boys, all under age 10, burst out of one house at the sound of a television news helicopter overhead. They pointed to the sky and shouted.

"I think it's actually pretty traumatic," said Valerie Yoder, a Mennonite who lives on White Oak Road where the schoolhouse is located. "We're not used to all the cameras and everything."

The violence left some in the community wondering how they will ever recover. The Amish religion provides some structure as far as funerals and burials, but many inside and outside the religious enclave, wondered how they would ease the long-term pain and suffering of those who had witnessed the schoolhouse attack or lost loved ones. Amish rarely seek help outside their community, which could prevent psychiatric counseling for those traumatized by the violence.

Kauffman, the uncle of one of the victims, said the girl was the third of his sister's four children, all of whom attended the West Nickel Mines School. He said the youngest, a 7-year-old-boy, was "pretty much a wreck."

"I guess we're going to have to help him, but I don't know how," he said. "I wish someone could tell me how to help him."

Retired farmers Roman and Fran Beiler live two miles from the school. When they learned of the shootings, they went to the farmhouse to which 15 male students from the school had fled and where the families had gathered.

"They were all sitting in a row, quiet, just stunned," Fran Beiler, a 66-year-old grandmother of 15, said of the boys. The teacher and some family members, she said, were weeping and clutching each other.

"Amish people don't show too much emotion," Fran Beiler said. "But they did then."

Yoder said three or four of her neighbors on White Oak Road had children who were killed or wounded in the attack. She said they included friends of her four children, who range in age from 1 to 12.

"You always think of our area being peaceful and nothing like this ever happening here," she said. "Obviously, things have changed."

Yoder, a Mennonite, said she and her husband would use the family car to help ferry Amish neighbors around in the days to come.

"It's a very close-knit community, so we'll pull together and we'll help everyone out," she said.

Shooter's wife speaks
But as the Amish community reeled with disbelief, so did Roberts' family. His wife, Marie, issued a brief statement in which she praised her husband as an "exceptional father," according to several TV and newspaper reports.

"The man who did this today is not the Charlie that I've been married to for almost 10 years," Marie Roberts said in the release. "My husband is loving, supportive, thoughtful, all the things you'd always want and more. ... Our hearts are broken. Our lives are shattered, and we grieve for the innocence and lives that were lost today."

The school shooting bore similarities to an attack last week in Bailey, Colo., where a man took several girls hostage in a Platte Canyon High School classroom, then killed one of them and himself. Police investigating the Colorado shooting said the man sexually molested the girls. However, local police said yesterday that none of the Amish girls had been assaulted.

"It's a very traumatic situation," Miller said. "One of the girls died in the arms of one of my troopers."

A state trooper escorted reporters to the schoolhouse on White Oak Road late last night.

A simple bell tower capped the small, yellow building. A swing set, a slide and two outhouses were visible in the dark.

To the right of the gray schoolhouse door was a cupboard that holds the children's drinking mugs.

There was no glass in the window panes. Orange flags in a grassy field marked evidence. A helicopter was parked beyond a baseball backstop. Beyond that, two white horses grazed in the shadow of a silo.

Police did not let reporters enter the school.

A sense of despair
The despair that gripped the community was shared by many - Amish, Mennonite and "English," as those who live modern lives are called.

Paradise, Pa., resident Evelyn Vandament, who is not Amish, said that when she heard about the shooting she offered to drive two Amish to the home of a couple who have children who attend the school. She said she waited outside while Amish people gathered and prayed inside the couple's home, but that once the private prayer was over, she was invited inside.

"We cried together, we talked together," Vandament said. "This is so devastating for everyone. You can't say anything, you can't do anything. These are my friends and neighbors. It's so hard."

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