By Douglas Birch and Josh Mitchell
October 3, 2006
NICKEL MINES, Pa.
So those who knew Charlie Roberts were in a state of shock yesterday when authorities named him as the suicidal gunman who shot a classroom full of girls, execution-style, in a tiny Amish schoolhouse.
"The man who did this today is not the Charlie that I've been married to for almost 10 years," said Marie Roberts, 28, the gunman's widow, in a statement released to the press.
"My husband is loving, supportive, thoughtful, all the things you'd always want and more."
Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, held a steady job working nights driving a truck that picked up milk from area dairy farms. A driver who worked with Roberts said he picked up milk from some of the farms where the children in the school lived.
"I imagine he knew some of these kids," said Ray Shirk, 60.
Roberts, his wife and three children - two boys and a girl ages about 1 to 7 - lived in the tiny village of Georgetown, Pa., 55 miles west of Philadelphia and a short drive from the school.
After taking his school-age children to their bus stop yesterday, as usual, Roberts drove a borrowed pickup to the entrance of the rural West Nickel Mines Amish School. The shootings occurred about 10:45 a.m., police said.
Police could offer no explanation for the killings. Roberts left what they described as rambling notes for his family.
During a siege, he called his wife to say he felt tormented and sought vengeance for some unspecified 20-year-old offense that he had evidently brooded over since the age of about 12.
In her statement, Marie Roberts called her husband "an exceptional father" who took his children to soccer practice, played ball in the backyard and took his 7-year-old daughter shopping.
"He never said no when I'd ask him to change a diaper," she said. "Our hearts are broken. Our lives are shattered, and we grieve for the innocent lives that were lost today."
She pleaded for people to pray for the families of those killed, as well for as her own.
Roberts hauled milk for the Northwest Food Products Transfer Station in East Earl, Pa., which is owned by the Land O'Lakes dairy cooperative. He had delivered milk for at least seven years, a neighbor said.
Shirk, his co-worker at the transfer station, said that the Teamsters union at the station tried to talk Roberts into joining, but he declined.
Driving one of the gleaming steel tankers loaded with 50,000 pounds of milk is considered a solid, middle-class job in this rural community, residents say. The hours can be difficult, a community resident said, but the pay is considered good.
"Drivers in the winter, especially if there's snow and ice, may wind up with a real wild schedule," said Don Ranck, owner of a dairy farm that doubles as a bed and breakfast in nearby Paradise Township. "It can be challenging work because the schedule isn't predictable."
The Roberts home, next to a Methodist church and graveyard, was deserted yesterday.
A plastic child's basketball hoop was on a deck, along with four straw Halloween scarecrows. The smallest scarecrow wore an infant's green jumpsuit. The family's two dogs were gone.
According to media reports, the gunman was not Amish and had not attended the school.
Police said they believed he chose the one-room structure because it was nearby and had no security.
Morgan Erb, 15, baby-sat for the Roberts family in the summer of last year. She said the truck driver was a "nice" man who never seemed threatening but seldom spoke. "He just wasn't the type who would come up and talk to you," she said. "He wouldn't start up a conversation with you." She said he only spoke when others spoke to him.
Several other neighbors said they had never seen Roberts angry. "I can't believe it," said Mary Fischer, who lives next door. Roberts was the driver who picked up milk from her son's dairy. "I have never heard him say an angry word."
An Amish family recalled how he accidentally ran over a wheelbarrow with his milk-hauling rig. He knocked on the door and calmly reported the incident.
Another driver, the family said, might have been angry that the implement was left where the delivery truck would hit it in the dark.
Roberts' father-in-law, Kenneth "Kenny" L. Welk, is a well-known retired milk hauler, friends said.
Like others in the area, Ranck, the bed-and-breakfast owner, expressed fear that Marie Roberts and their three children will suffer because of the killings.
He said Marie Roberts comes from "a real nice family."
Ranck and others said the community, where the Amish ride in horse-drawn buggies and avoid using modern technology, has its share of crime, but violence is rare.
Charles Roberts' parents live in a two-story home in nearby Bart, Pa. A blond woman who answered the door declined interviews yesterday. A dozen cars were parked nearby.
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