Juan Ignacio Blanco  


  MALE murderers

index by country

index by name   A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

  FEMALE murderers

index by country

index by name   A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z




Murderpedia has thousands of hours of work behind it. To keep creating new content, we kindly appreciate any donation you can give to help the Murderpedia project stay alive. We have many
plans and enthusiasm to keep expanding and making Murderpedia a better site, but we really
need your help for this. Thank you very much in advance.




Sylvia Wynanda SEEGRIST





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Shooting rampage
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: October 30, 1985
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: July 31, 1960
Victims profile: Recife Cosmen, 2 / Dr. Ernest Trout, 67 / Augusto Ferrara, 64
Method of murder: Shooting (Ruger semiautomatic .22 caliber rifle)
Location: Springfield, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, USA
Status: Found guilty, but insane, she was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences (one for each victim she killed) and seven consecutive 10-year terms (one for each victim she wounded) in June 1986

photo gallery


Sylvia Seegrist letter (4.7 Mb)


Sylvia Wynanda Seegrist (born July 31, 1960) is an American woman who on October 30, 1985 opened fire at a Springfield, Pennsylvania shopping mall, killing three people and wounding seven others before being disarmed by a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT who was shopping at the mall. The individuals killed included two men and a two-year-old boy.

She was 25 years old and had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia 10 years earlier. Having been committed and discharged several times, her case stimulated discussion about the state's authority to commit possibly dangerous people versus individual rights.

Early signs of trouble

Seegrist's story parallels those of other mentally disturbed spree killers in several ways, such as a tendency toward violent thoughts, discussions, and behavior building to a major incident. Seegrist was hospitalized at least twelve times since she was fifteen years old. She spent a good deal of time at the mall she chose for the 1985 spree, harassing customers and making statements about how "good" other spree killings were, such as the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald's massacre.

Seegrist had made herself conspicuous with unusual behavior like sitting fully clothed wearing green army fatigues at both a spa and sauna at a local fitness club. An instructor at the fitness club Seegrist attended said "she hated everyone and would often talk about shooting and killing people."

Rampage at the Springfield Mall

Seegrist's behavior was so disconcerting that clerks at a local K-Mart told her they had no rifles in stock when she tried to purchase one from them. She eventually purchased a Ruger 10/22 at another store, and on October 30, 1985 she went to the mall. The first trip that day was not the rampage, as she shopped for Halloween items at a party store and worked out at the club before returning to the Springfield Mall for the last time.

Seegrist exited her Datsun B-210, retrieved the weapon she had purchased, and then fired at a man approximately 30 yards from where she stood. The man was not hit and having seen the vehicle his would-be killer arrived in, flattened one of the Datsun's tires to prevent an escape in that vehicle. Meanwhile Seegrist had strode toward the nearest entrance and fired at a woman using a nearby ATM, also missing. Before entering the mall, she managed to hit and kill two-year-old Recife Cosmen who was with his parents waiting to eat at a local restaurant.

Once inside, Seegrist fired into some stores and ignored others. Though many customers fled when they heard the gunfire, she came across (Ernest) Earl Trout, who either could not or did not hear it and was simply standing in front of a store where he became one of the three people killed that day. Augustus Ferrara was the last person killed in the rampage. John Laufer, who did not realize Sylvia was firing real bullets, disarmed her as she walked up to him and tried to raise her gun to shoot him. Laufer forced her to a nearby store while he waited for the arrival of mall security. The first guard that responded asked her why she had just done what she did; her reply was "My family makes me nervous".


Prior to the competency hearing Seegrist was transferred to Norristown State Hospital for evaluation. On March 7, 1986 Seegrist was deemed competent to stand trial for the killings. Found guilty, but insane, she was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences (one for each victim she killed) and seven consecutive 10-year terms (one for each victim she wounded). The judge had said that Seegrist "should spend the rest of her life in some form of incarceration". She was sent to the psychiatric specialty hospital Mayview State Hospital for evaluation and was eventually moved to the State Correctional Institution in Muncy.


Seegrist's actions helped spur the state government to form a legislative task force, in order to address better ways to care for the mentally ill in the community. Seegrist's mother also urged legislators to make changes to the state mental health laws. The existence or nature of changes made by the task force is unknown.

In response to the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Seegrist's mother Ruth told The Philly Post, "You know, it’s ironic that people who are irrational are expected under the law to get help on their own. There needs to be something in the law that compels a troubled person to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist. In the 1950s, we were institutionalizing people who weren’t mentally ill. You could institutionalize someone who was just unruly. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other.


Sylvia Seegrist went psycho and killed three innocent people at the Springfield, Pa., mall

Seegrist was known in her neighborhood as Ms. Rambo, for her frightening comments and behavior

By Mara Bovsun -

December 2, 2012

Long before the bullets started flying, everyone knew something was very wrong with Sylvia Seegrist.

Acquaintances said she was always angry and nicknamed her “Ms. Rambo.”

Even her mother was terrified. In July 1985, Ruth Seegrist wrote an article for a Pennsylvania paper, the Springfield Press, about life with her paranoid schizophrenic 25-year-old daughter. She had pleaded for years to keep her child locked up, but to no avail. “What do you need? Blood on the floor?” she wrote.

Four months later, this mother’s worst nightmare came true.

Around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1985, Sylvia Seegrist, dressed in Army fatigues and black boots, parked her car at the front of the Springfield Mall, stepped out and started shooting. Bullets from her .22 semi-automatic rifle missed her first targets — a woman at an ATM and a man walking in the lot.

A group of children standing outside the Magic Pan restaurant were not so lucky. A bullet tore into the tiny chest of Recife Cosmen, 2, hitting him in the heart. His two cousins, Tiffany Wootson, 10, and Kareen Wootson, 9, were also shot, but they would recover from their wounds.

From there, Seegrist dashed into the mall.

People first thought that the pop, pop, pop of the rifle was part of a marketing or Halloween stunt, since the holiday was just a day away.

But then they saw blood on the floor and heard screams. Shoppers scrambled for cover in jewelry vaults, dressing rooms, back offices, any place that would put them out of the gunwoman’s sight.

Seegrist continued, swinging the rifle, shooting wildly, randomly, into groups in front of the restaurants and stores. It took all of five minutes for her to get off 15 shots, wounding 10, three fatally. In addition to Cosmen, Augusto Ferrara, 64, died on the spot, Another shopper, Dr. Ernest Trout, 67, suffered wounds to his head, abdomen and buttocks. He died a few days later at the hospital.

The shooting might have gone on, had it not been for a graduate student, Jack Laufer, out on a date with a new girlfriend, Victoria Loring, both 24 and EMTs for the local fire department.

Laufer saw a woman in fatigues, shooting a rifle, and jumped to the conclusion it was all a Halloween prank. He didn’t think it was funny.

Seegrist took aim at him, but Laufer simply walked up to her and wrestled the gun from her grip. He turned her over to police, and then the unassuming hero rushed, with his girlfriend, to help the wounded.

At her arraignment, Seegrist snarled at the judge: “Hurry up, man, you know I’m guilty. Kill me on the spot.” Instead, she was locked up in Delaware County Prison.

In the days that followed, reporters had no trouble finding people to offer details about the shooter’s odd life. Everyone who had even brushed by Seegrist had a bizarre tale to tell. She glared at people, one man recalled, with a face like a “demon possessed,” shrieked curses and ranted about nuclear war and how the world was against her. She raked leaves at 4 in the morning, drank furniture polish, sat in a steam room in Army fatigues, and marched up and down the staircase in her apartment building. The manager of a Springfield Mall drugstore where she picked up her meds had given her the nickname “Ms. Rambo.”.

When early reports came out that a woman had shot up a mall, no one who knew her had the slightest doubt about the identity of the killer.

For the first few years of Seegrist’s life, such violence would have seemed unimaginable. She had been a bright, happy child until about age 13, when something went terribly wrong. Her mother said the decline started after the girl said her grandfather had molested her. By 15, Seegrist was smoking pot and having sex with neighborhood boys.

Soon after, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and committed for the first of a dozen stays in mental health facilities. But her commitments were brief because of laws, drafted to protect the rights of the mentally ill, that made it difficult to lock her up against her will.

She remained free, even after she stabbed a guidance counselor, tried to strangle her mother, and talked constantly about killing people.

Drugs to help her condition made her sick, and she refused to take them.

Despite increasingly violent acts and fantasies, she somehow managed to get a gun.

On March 22, 1985, she tried to purchase a rifle at a K-Mart, but clerks there took one look at her military attire and weird behavior and sent her away unarmed.

A week later, in a different department store, she filled out all the required forms, including one that asked if she had ever been mentally ill or in trouble with the law. She lied, and walked out with the rifle she would use seven months later in the Springfield Mall.

In June 1986, a jury found Seegrist guilty but mentally ill. Her sentence: Three consecutive life terms, plus 10- to 20-year concurrent sentences for the seven wounded. At long last, someone had answered Ruth Seegrist’s prayers. The judge ensured that her dangerous daughter would never again be free.

Today, Ms. Rambo remains behind bars, her name popping up every so often, a historical footnote on those awful occasions when a madman grabs a gun and goes on a rampage.


Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane

By Katherine Ramsland

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.

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.

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.

Still a Mistery

It did not take long to learn the shooter's identity.

Many of those who worked at the mall already knew this woman.  Her name was Sylvia Seegrist, 25, and she frequented the place, often harassing customers and scaring them with bizarre monologues. Once she had complained that the colors of the clothing were too bright, making her angry and bringing out the worst in her. People just walked away.

She was from Crum Lynne in Delaware County, and lived within walking distance of the mall. People in her apartment building, too, thought she was strange, the way she raked leaves at night, played loud music, and shouted threats. She had told one woman about a dream she'd had that she was a rubber ball, bouncing around the ceiling, which Seegrist believed was about the way people pushed her around because of her ideas.

By the next day, the incident was in all the papers, most notably The Philadelphia Inquirer, since this mall was in the greater Philadelphia area.

It was soon learned that a week earlier Seegrist had been trying to get a prescription for tranquilizers filled at the mall drugstore, but the pharmacist had refused to do it because she had not brought her welfare card. Although she returned later that day with her card and got the pills, apparently this refusal had frustrated her and she decided to take some action. In fact, most of the shooting had occurred in the pedestrian area in front of Rite Aid on the ground level.

Her behavior was not unlike that of men who commit workplace violence. Quite often, their idea is to get some form of payback, although many have been suicidal. As the case unfolded, the hints emerged that Seegrist may have hoped for death during the melee, or at least to be executed for it.

In the aftermath, people learned who the victims were. The murdered 2-year-old boy, Recife Cosmen, was from Delaware, and the other fatality, 64-year-old Augusto Ferrara, was from Philadelphia. Dr. Ernest Trout, 67, the man who had been hit three times, was in the worst condition and needed immediate surgery. One of the bullets had entered his brain.

The rest of the wounded were removed to four different area hospitals for treatment.

"There's no rhyme or reason for this," said Captain John McKenna, director of the criminal investigations division of the Delaware County DA's office. He mentioned that Seegrist had a history of aggressive incidents related to mental illness, and called the incident a terrible tragedy over which no one has any control.

Neighbors who knew her said she was consumed by hatred, especially toward children. She dressed in fatigues and berets and often preached angry passages from political propaganda, especially Muslim. She claimed that she wanted to fight as a guerrilla in Iran. One man said, "She had a real spacey look about her." When he heard about the shooting, he immediately envisioned Seegrist as the perpetrator. So did others who knew her.

In newspaper interviews, Laufer said he thought the woman had been firing blanks as a prank. Just before he had stopped her, she had raised the rifle directly at him.

"She wasn't saying anything while she was shooting," he recalled. "She muttered some incomprehensible things when I grabbed her."

After ensuring that she had been subdued, he had used his training as an emergency medical technician to attend to the wounded and assist with their transport.

Laufer was hailed as a hero, receiving letters and calls from around the country, invitations onto television talk shows, and requests for newspaper interviews. Given how many bullets Seegrist had left, people were happy that someone had stopped her so quickly. Laufer was happy to have escaped with his life.

Shooter's Statement

At her arraignment that evening around 8:00 P.M., which she attended barefoot, Seegrist was less than cooperative. She swore at reporters assembled inside and outside the courtroom who were hoping for pictures and a statement. They certainly got a story. She had apparently asked the arresting officers to "just shoot me now," and that was quoted the next day.

Seegrist appeared for about 10 minutes before District Justice Joseph L. DiPietro in Springfield Township on two counts of murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of crime, and carrying a gun without a license. She was being held in jail without bail until she could get a preliminary hearing. No one yet realized that this would be no simple case. Not only would her competency and sanity be questioned, but her case was about to inspire new legislation regarding the mentally ill.

Among her first words to the judge were "F-- you, I hope you starve, motherf--. I don't like that feeling, but that's the way it is."

The judge asked her age so she told him she was 25.  She then added that she did not expect to live beyond that. Asked her phone number, she rattled off a long string of random numbers in a voice charged with anger. She also lashed out with the statement that she wished she had never been born, and told the court that the reason for her rampage was trouble with her parents. 

"My parents beat me, of course," she told the court. "The police never handled my parents."

By this time, no one knew quite what to think of her responses, although her mother had already given an interview to reporters to let them know that Sylvia had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 15 and had been committed to psychiatric hospitals twelve separate times over the past ten years. She had noticed that Sylvia had been acting psychotic in recent days, an indication that she may have gone off her medication. On the morning of the rampage, Ruth Seegrist had asked her daughter to get recommitted, but Sylvia had resisted, saying she would rather go to prison than back to the hospital.

Told by psychiatrists that involuntary commitment was impossible without a clearly violent incident, Ruth Seegrist had given up on that idea.

She herself had experienced some of Sylvia's violence.  A year earlier, Sylvia had tried to choke her outside an automobile license agency and the police had intervened. Sylvia had been committed for three weeks, but could not be held longer, despite a psychiatric report that offered a poor prognosis. 

There had been other violent episodes as well, yet psychiatrists had repeatedly let her out of the hospital to live on her own. They had to, by state law. She lived alone because no one could stand to live with her, and she had been evicted from at least one apartment for her aggressive behavior. (Former roommates reported that living conditions were a nightmare, and some of them were afraid of her.)

In Ruth Seegrist's opinion, Sylvia had lost touch with reality and could not comprehend the simplest inquiries. She was obsessed with "negative energy," a phenomenon that she apparently could not explain to anyone who asked. Her thinking was entirely disorganized.

That was clear throughout the brief arraignment.

Lane and Gregg quote Sylvia as saying, "Hurry up, man. You know I'm guilty. Just kill me on the spot." She admitted that she had "done something terrible, but then added, "So what? I signed up with the communists; men are always ready to go to war."

Kelleher says that, as the judge read the charges, she looked around, paying no attention to him. Finally she said, "Do you have a black box? That is my testimony."

Her preliminary hearing was set for November 7, a week later.

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.

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.

Placing Blame

The Pennsylvania mental health system was criticized over this incident and for their handling of Seegrist over the years. Not only had there been incidents of violence with her, with only minimal hospitalization, but two weeks before the most deadly incident, she had placed a call to a psychiatrist. Rather than being invited to come in, she was given an over-the-phone prescription refill for a drug to calm her anxiety. 

But psychologists and psychiatrists pointed out that the civil rights movement during the 1970s on behalf of the mentally ill had ensured that they cannot be institutionalized without a violent incident.  Even if they needed hospitalization, once they were restored to calmer behavior, they were to be released. That meant that, for their rights to be protected, society could be vulnerable to the occasional rampage. Most such patients were not violent, so they should not have to have their rights curtailed for the sake of those few who were.

Seegrist had been diagnosed as a sophomore in high school when she was removed from class at Springfield High School and put into a mental hospital. Although she had been an excellent student with an interest in science, her performance had become inconsistent and her anger noticeable.

Schizophrenia commonly strikes during adolescence, affecting about one percent of the population. Such people become increasingly disoriented within their environment and disorganized in their thinking, and may show mildly aggressive outbursts. Potentially violent behavior can usually be controlled with anti-psychotic drugs.

Yet in 1980, Seegrist had been committed to the Tricounty Fountain Center and was eventually transferred to a hospital setting. After three weeks, she returned to Tricounty, where on her second day she stabbed a counselor in the back with a paring knife. That got her a stint in jail and a transfer to a forensic hospital. Instead of going to court, as the facility requested, she was sent for rehabilitation and then discharged back into the community. Her victim objected that Seegrist was too dangerous for that. She told a judge that Seegrist had often expressed a desire to get a gun and shoot people. That statement was strikingly prescient---and tragically ignored.

With the Seegrist case commanding headlines, debate about the correct treatment for the mentally ill was on. Plenty of mental health professionals wanted better parameters for involuntary commitment, but they had been stymied by legislation that failed to understand the danger of throwing mentally ill people, unprepared to live on their own, into the population at large. By some estimates, this accounted for as many as 15% of those who were released. That was a lot of people without resources who would only become more confused and helpless.

The papers quoted Dr. Edward B. Guy, director of Hahnemann Mental Health Services in the Philadelphia prison system as saying that, "It's very frightening to see violence in a schizophrenic." He said that such violence would likely be repeated and the mental health system should be able to hold such a person involuntarily. He believed that structure and continued treatment was essential. Laws that required an actual incident within 30 days of committal were not good for patients or for society.

But there were those who opposed changing the laws, citing instances of excessive hospitalization in the past for those who had not needed it. Putting too much power over these decisions into the hands of psychiatrists risked abuse and a violation of individual rights. There were instances of that and no guarantee that it would not happen again.

Due to the Seegrist incident and the concerns expressed in the mental health community, Common Pleas Court Judge Lois G. Forer looked into changing the laws to allow the testimony of two board-certified psychiatrists regarding a person's potential dangerousness to be sufficient for commitment. She formed a task force to study the problem, with the intent of changing legislation on a national level.

The Inquirer published two more tragic accounts of mentally ill people being handled badly within the system. Samuel Guess, 44, was picked up for directing traffic in the nude. After being released, he returned to the police station with a baseball bat and was shot down and killed as he came at several officers. Another person who had died was Mitchell Miller, Jr., 35, who had been taken to an emergency room for potential commitment. Left in a police van for hours on a hot day, due to overworked resources, he succumbed to the heat.

And it was not as if Seegrist had not been seeking help. Six months before the incident, she had called a psychiatrist at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. He invited her to see him and gave her a prescription for Xanax to reduce her anxiety. He never saw her again, but did get a call to renew the prescription. He had phoned it in to the Rite Aid drugstore at the Springfield Mall.

Twists, Turns, and Tragedy

In the year after the rampage, Seegrist underwent extensive psychiatric examinations for competency to see if she could understand the charges against her and participate in her defense.

Her public defenders, Steven Leach and Ruth Schafer, insisted that the district attorney's office had no right to pry into Seegrist's psychiatric records and filed a motion that all records be returned. This inspired debate and more hearings that delayed the proceedings.

In the meantime, Ernest Trout, the man whom Seegrist had shot three times, died December 1 from a blood clot caused by the shooting. He had never regained consciousness, and the prognosis was blindness and paralysis even if he had lived. Seegrist's bullet had passed through one of his temples, damaging the frontal lobe of his brain and an eye. Both of his eyes had been removed. But despite the surgeons' efforts, Trout could not be saved.

His widow, along with the other survivors and relatives of victims, was determined that his murderer would get prosecuted.

A hearing to determine Seegrist's competence was set for December 5. The defense hired Dr. Robert Sadoff to evaluate Seegrist and he said that she was not competent to stand trial. A psychiatrist at Haverford State Hospital, John Fong, also stated that she was severely mentally disabled, and the personnel at Mayview believed she needed continued involuntary treatment. Her preliminary hearing, tentatively scheduled for December 6, was once again postponed.

The DA's office was permitted access to Sylvia's mental health records, but only for competency assessment, not for trial. They were also allowed to see Seegrist's records from the Swarthmore Public Library. Director Janis Lee was asked to disclose Seegrist's reading preferences. She believed this was a private matter, so she resisted. Reporters then attacked her in print for her steadfast refusal, but she did not budge. Only when the court ordered it did she finally reveal the list, and for her, as Janis Lee reported, it proved to be a painful ethical ordeal.

The court then appointed psychiatrist James H. Ewing to conduct an evaluation of competency. Seegrist was transferred to Norristown State Hospital, near Philadelphia, for the evaluation.

On March 7, 1986, Seegrist was declared competent to stand trial, with the proviso that before or during the trial, her mental state might deteriorate. The next step was a preliminary hearing, and Seegrist sat through all the testimony scribbling a long note. The defense introduced it as evidence of her disability, by revealing the nonsense that consumed her. She had written "The end of commerce, the end of post office, and the end of money!"

A trial was scheduled and Seegrist's defense attorneys stated that they would use an insanity defense, based on the fact that Seegrist was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and that illness had caused the incident.

The Trial

Opening statements began June 18, 1986, seven months after the shooting. Sylvia Seegrist was charged with three counts of murder and seven counts of attempted murder and assault.

The prosecutor, William H. Ryan Jr, believed that Seegrist had planned the attack and had done it for attention.  Seegrist's defense attorneys said that she was ill and had not been able to appreciate that what she was doing was wrong. They were armed with testimony about early abuse, a breakdown in the mental health system, and a long documented history of severe mental disability.

Early testimony came from the security guard at the Springfield Mall. She had seen Seegrist on other occasions acting strangely. She reported that, after being handcuffed on the day of the incident, Sylvia had started talking about negative energy and a black box. It wasn't as nonsensical as it seemed. There was in fact a black box, which contained a Russian dictionary, high school homework, and newspaper articles that she was apparently trying to translate. The security guard stated that Sylvia admitted she had done something wrong and should have been shot.

Witnesses who had been at the mall that day were called to testify about what they had seen and heard. The injuries to the victims were graphically recounted, to the point where some people were in tears.

Ryan showed that Seegrist had joined a rifle club six months before the shooting, and her statements to both Laufer and the guard directly afterward indicated that she was aware that what she was doing was wrong. She had also visited a lawyer on October 29, 1985, to have her last will and testament drawn up, as if she was expecting to die.

The defense brought Sylvia's mother to the stand, and she spoke about how Sylvia's paternal grandfather had masturbated in front of her when she was only eight, and had demonstrated various sexual positions. At age 15, she was diagnosed, and following that she had experienced fifteen separate hospitalizations. At various times, she had exhibited bizarre behavior such as cutting off all her hair, spray-painting herself, and writing hostile expressions on her walls.

Three mental health professionals, two psychiatrists and one psychologist, testified that Seegrist was too mentally ill to appreciate what she had done on October 30, 1985.  She had gone to the mall, one of them reported, with the idea that killing people would put them out of their misery because she believed that many people wished they had never been born. She also hoped to teach rescue personnel how to respond to emergencies, to make the Army proud of her, and to become a famous criminal as a way to find her identity. In other words, her thinking was delusional. Dr Gerald Cooke, Dr. Robert Bowman, and Dr. Robert Sadoff all concurred on this opinion. So did a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. James Ewing.

Ryan contended that since Seegrist had done well in psychology courses, she knew how to fool the doctors. He also brought Dr. Park Dietz to the stand, and he testified that Seegrist had known what she was doing and had known that it was wrong. While she had a mental illness, it might be bipolar disorder rather than schizophrenia. She had executed her shootings in an organized manner and had made statements to the police and security guard that indicated a planned attack that was under her control. She was therefore not legally insane.

The defense closed with the statement that Sylvia was a victim of mental illness, while the prosecution said that because she was unable to succeed at anything, she blamed society. The judge told the jury that they had four options: to find Seegrist guilty, not guilty, guilty but mentally ill, or not guilty by reason of insanity.

The trial had lasted eight days, and the jury of 12 took more than nine hours to deliver a verdict.

Seegrist was found guilty but mentally ill and given three consecutive life sentences, with a maximum of 10 years each for the seven counts of attempted murder. Sent to a psychiatric facility for evaluation, she was eventually moved to the State Correctional Institution at Muncy.

Second trial

In a civil action against Seegrist in October 1987, relatives of her victims, as well as those who had been wounded, filed a gross negligence lawsuit against the owners of the Springfield Mall, Haverford State Hospital, the township police department, the corporation that owned Best Products, and a mental health counselor, on the basis that they had collectively failed to take precautions to ensure the community's safety. Despite the fact that it seemed like a long shot, evidence was brought out that Seegrist had apparently made threatening gestures in days leading up to her rampage, and that some people were aware of her violent history.

The defense used a "shadow jury," assembled by a jury consultant company, to provide them with feedback about the likelihood of the actual jury finding the defendants liable. 

Lane and Gregg write that Seegrist had visited the McDonald's in San Ysidro, California, where the year before her rampage, James Huberty had taken an assault weapon. She apparently had indicated that she wanted to do something similar.

In that incident, Huberty had yelled to the patrons, "Everybody, get down on the floor or I'll kill somebody."  They had attempted to comply, but the impatient Huberty started shooting anyway. He was there to take some lives. After ten minutes of this shooting frenzy, many people lay dead and wounded, most of them teenagers or children. An employee in the kitchen managed to phone the police, and eventually, a SWAT officer shot and killed Huberty.

His final victim tally was 20 dead and 20 wounded, one of whom would die later, making twenty-one dead. It was deemed the worst single-day incidence of mass killing in the country's history.

Like Seegrist, Huberty had suffered from depression, and possibly something worse. His wife, Etna, had tried to persuade him the day before to see a psychiatrist. She knew that he'd been hearing voices. He'd been unemployed for several weeks and no matter how hard he tried he'd been unable to get on his feet. Huberty had grown increasingly morose over his failure and had called a local clinic, but they had failed to respond. So on the morning of July 18, after going to the zoo with his wife and daughter, he went out "hunting humans."

The story had made national headlines, and was played over and over again on television. Seegrist apparently saw it and felt inspired. That man had been angry, too. That man had wanted to pay someone back for all his pain.

She did not visit that McDonald's, however. Instead, she had gone into one near her and used her hand to make a gesture like she was shooting people, saying "I'm going to blow you all away." She had also said to Mall guards who escorted her away, "What happened in California was good. It should happen again."

The survivors and relatives believed that this behavior was a clear forewarning of what she would eventually do. In particular, Best Products and the mall should have been more careful.

The mall's attorneys protested that the laws would not have allowed them to seek commitment for Seegrist, and even if she had been detained, she would have gotten out again in short order, possibly even more dangerous than before. No one can predict what a person will do to endanger others in a public place and they should not be held accountable for every potential danger.

The jury apparently believed they could have done something to protect their customers better, for in February 1990, they awarded the plaintiffs damages. Just before the trial for determining the monetary amount, insurance companies settled for an undisclosed amount, but rumors placed it at over $3 million.

Unlike the real jury, the shadow jury had decided that the companies were not financially liable.

Risk Assessment

There were concerns about the fact that someone had been treated and released back into the community, considered no longer a danger to self or others. How many more might there be?

However, Seegrist's case defied this simplistic idea. She had a history of strange and aggressive behavior and had been through several treatment programs. She could not be treated against her will, although her parents had insisted to the court that she was not competent to make decisions about her own treatment.

In 1989, spurred by the Seegrist case, Congress approved a plan to revise the mental health system to allow involuntary commitment on the basis of clearly expressed threats to people or property. The bill also required training for caseworkers, more funding, and improved communication between state and local mental health services. Dissenting voices called it a "blueprint for a nightmare," unnecessarily overburdening an already overwhelmed system.

The real issue was whether mental health professionals could accurately predict who might be dangerous. Studies were launched to determine this. A key consideration in terms of how much an agency could actually step in was the tension between the rights of the state vs. the rights of the individual.

Cathy Young points to the case of Michael Laudor, a man with schizophrenia who had overcome many of the debilitating effects of his illness to graduate from law school. He became a hero to mental illness advocates, but when his drugs stopped being so effective and further stressors sent him spiraling downward, he ended up stabbing his pregnant fiancée to death. Could anyone have foreseen this?

The American Psychiatric Association has protested the unreliability of testimony that purports to be able to predict risk. Fortunately, risk assessment is improving with further research, and the predictions now utilize both clinical judgment and statistical data. The best predictions, however, are for short-term rather than long-term risk.

Mental health experts once used their best clinical judgment to determine whether someone was going to repeat his violent behavior if let out into the community. Those people would be committed involuntarily for their own good. However, research indicated that psychiatrists were right in only one out of three cases. That means that there were many "false positives"—people were committed who would not be violent—and "false negatives"—people were allowed to go free who then committed violence. That error rate was unacceptable.

In the 1980s, a number of studies were undertaken to develop instruments that would improve the percentage of correct assessments of dangerousness, and instead of focusing on dangerousness itself, they emphasized what they called "risk factors."

Interviews and inventories were developed to determine whether a defendant was a psychopath (which had a high correlation for recidivism), whether he was sexually deviant (another good predictor), how impulsive he was, whether he had a character disorder or mental illness, whether he had paranoid delusions, what his school record was, whether he had committed crimes as a juvenile, and what his past history of violence was. Out of these studies came guidelines for making predictions based on facts and logic rather than on intuition or psychoanalytic assumptions.

Risk management, i.e., devising programs that might help a person avoid repeating his crimes, focuses on factors that yield to intervention, such as substance abuse or paranoid delusions. What becomes important in risk assessment is the individual's social support, living arrangements, and access to treatment.

The idea of "dangerousness" has been a central issue in the legal/mental health arena for many years, yet establishing an empirical body of data from which to make accurate predictions has been difficult. The problems include the actual legal definition, confusing research literature, personal biases that creep into the decisions, and a professional's fear of responsibility and liability.

One case in 1981, Estelle v. Smith, indicates a real need for standards. This was a death penalty case in Texas. On the basis of a brief mental status examination, the state's psychiatrist testified that the defendant, Smith, was a "severe sociopath." Based more or less on an intuitive sense of the man's apparent lack of remorse for being an accomplice in a murder (but was not the killer), the doctor stated that Smith would certainly commit other crimes. The psychiatric assessment was poorly rendered and it brought about numerous protests from the mental health community that it was unethical and not representative of responsible assessment. 

According to those researchers who have devoted considerable time to the subject, risk assessment research on which judgments are to be made should meet seven criteria:

  • "Dangerousness" must be segregated into component parts: risk factors, harm, and likelihood of occurrence

  • A rich array of risk factors must be assessed from multiple domains in the offender's life

  • Harm must be scaled in terms of seriousness and assessed with multiple measures

  • The probability estimate of risk must be acknowledged to change over time and context

  • Priority must be given to statistical research

  • The research must be done in large and broadly representative samples

  • The goal must be management as well as assessment

Despite protests by mental health groups over the years at the stereotype of the schizophrenic offender, in fact in recent studies there is a moderate association between current diagnosis of active symptoms of a major psychosis — especially one with paranoid delusions or poor thought control -- and violence in the community.  This risk increases with substance abuse and with the refusal to take medication. 

All in all, the mental health community is attempting to refine the methods for knowing when someone like Sylvia Seegrist might become dangerous.


In 1991, Sylvia gave an interview to Reid Kanaley for the Philadelphia Inquirer. With the help of treatment and medication, she had stabilized in her behavior and feelings, and she expressed some hope that eventually she might be released. She was no longer overwhelmed by anger or paranoia, and had no more delusions. Instead, what she felt was remorse over what she had done.

"Every time October 30 rolls around," she remarked, "I have a hard time that day. I have a hard time not crying. The idea that I hurt people. It's hard to describe." She said she did not realize at the time that she had been so sick.

Asked to account for her reasons, Seegrist said that she had feared that her mother was going to have her hospitalized that day. She so hated the side effects of her medication, which included weight gain, loss of muscle control, and problems with seeing, that she would have done anything to resist that fate. The current medications, much improved over those of the 1980s, had much less difficult effects. She no longer suffered from the violent fantasies she once had.

Indeed, it was her hope at the time to earn a degree in psychology and eventually to go into that field. Yet it was clear from comments by the DA's office when they heard about her ambitions that they would oppose her ever being released.

Another follow-up piece in 1994 indicated that Seegrist had nearly completed her college degree and was teaching math to fellow prisoners. Her mother commented that the prison structure for Seegrist was "humane."

In 2001, Julian Walker located Seegrist's mother and wrote a piece on her and her ideas about the mentally ill. Ruth Seegrist, a freelance writer at the time of her daughter's rampage, was then the director of Friends Hospital Family Resource Center in Philadelphia, created ten years after Sylvia's rampage. Ruth Seegrist made it a life mission to get information out to the public about the mentally ill. The FRC makes help and information available to family members trying to cope with the issues, as well as to patients who want to know more about their own illness.

Ruth and her husband, Don, had explored many treatment options while trying to find a way to deal with their daughter.  Even before Sylvia went to the Springfield Mall on that fateful day, the Seegrists were struggling to know what to do. Their daughter had grown steadily worse, both in her symptoms and her anger, and there seemed to be nowhere to turn for an answer. Over the years, Ruth acquired both useful information and not so useful information. She knows what works, what she should say (or not), and to whom she should refer someone. She understands that mental illness may be a chemical imbalance and she realizes why patients do not want to take their medication, even though it's necessary to their wellbeing. 

Most of her work revolved around people in a recovery mode who had been out of the hospital for at least a year. She assisted them with their treatment plan and encouraged them to believe that things would get better.

Whether or not Sylvia ever gets released, her legacy is that people may better understand that someone who is ill may commit violence that even that person does not fully understand.  It's important to ensure that mental health resources are available, well-coordinated, and compassionate toward those who cannot assist themselves.



home last updates contact