The man who killed three women after a daylong siege at a Northern California veterans home had trouble adjusting to regular life after he returned from the Afghanistan war and had been kicked out of the treatment program designed to help him.
As family and friends of the victims tried to make sense of the tragedy, authorities offered little information Saturday about why Albert Wong, 36, attacked The Pathway Home and whether he targeted his victims. Those who knew the women said they had dedicated their lives to helping those suffering like Wong, and they would’ve been in a good position to assist him had Friday’s hostage situation ended differently.
“We lost three beautiful people yesterday,” Yountville Mayor John Dubar said. “We also lost one of our heroes who clearly had demons that resulted in the terrible tragedy that we all experienced here.”
Authorities said Wong, a former Army rifleman who served a year in Afghanistan in 2011-2012 and returned highly decorated, went to the campus about 50 miles (85 kilometers) north of San Francisco on Friday morning, slipping into a going-away party for some employees of The Pathway Home. He let some people leave, but kept the three.
Police said a Napa Valley sheriff’s deputy exchanged gunshots with Wong around 10:30 a.m. but after that nothing was heard from him. From a vet-center crafts building across the street from the PTSD center, witness Sandra Woodford said she saw lawmen with guns trained outside, but said the only shots she heard were inside Pathway early Friday. “This rapid live-fire of rounds going on, at least 12,” Woodford said.
Hours later, authorities found four bodies, including Wong.
His victims were identified as The Pathway Home Executive Director Christine Loeber, 48; Clinical Director Jennifer Golick, 42; and Jennifer Gonzales, 29, a clinical psychologist with the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System. A family friend told The Associated Press that Gonzales was seven months pregnant.
“These brave women were accomplished professionals who dedicated their careers to serving our nation’s veterans, working closely with those in the greatest need of attention after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan,” The Pathway Home said in a statement.
Wong was “calm and soft-spoken” but had a hard time re-adjusting after he returned from Afghanistan in 2013 and couldn’t sleep at night, Cissy Sherr, who was Wong’s legal guardian when he was a child, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Sherr and her husband became Wong’s guardians after his father died and his mother developed health problems, she said. He moved back in with them for about a month when he returned from his deployment and kept in touch online.
“We were so proud of the young man he had grown up to be through the years. His life was not the average life with a stable situation, what with having his dad die when he was so young and his mom not being around to raise him,” Sherr told the newspaper.
Wong wanted to go back to school to study computers and business and thought the Pathway House program would help him, she said.
Dunbar, a member of The Pathway Home’s board of directors, said the program has served over 450 veterans in more than a decade. Six members are currently in the nonprofit men’s residential recovery program for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, he said.
The program is housed at the Veterans Home of California-Yountville in the Napa Valley wine country region. The largest veterans home in the nation cares for about 1,000 elderly and disabled vets.
Golick’s father-in-law, Mike Golick, said in an interview she had recently expelled Wong from the program. After Wong entered the building, Golick called her husband to say she had been taken hostage by the former soldier, her father-in-law said.
He didn’t hear from his wife again.
Marjorie Morrison, the founder of a nonprofit organization known as PsychArmor, recalled Gonzales as a “brilliant” talent who did amazing work with veterans with PTSD, and also focused on helping college campuses successfully reintegrate veterans when they return to school.
Gonzales, a mother-to-be, had planned to travel to Washington, D.C., this weekend to celebrate her wedding anniversary, family friend Vasiti Ritova said.
Loeber, who had taken over The Pathway Home 18 months ago, was known by all as dedicated and caring.
“She would sleep in her office more often than not because she had to be there to fill a shift, that’s the kind of personal dedication she showed all of us,” Dunbar said.
Family friend Tom Turner said Loeber would be helping others understand and deal with the tragedy if she were still alive.
“She’d have a better perspective than I would,” he said. “And she wouldn’t be as angry I am.”
Dunbar said all three of the women were excellent at what they did, and will be sorely missed. He added that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come home with “a lot of need for special care.”
Dunbar did not answer questions about why Wong was removed from the program. There was no answer at the small, neatly kept Napa ranch house listed on property records as Wong’s most recent address. A neighbor told a reporter he hadn’t lived there for a couple years, but declined to say more.
President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday morning: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic situation in Yountville and mourn the loss of three incredible women who cared for our Veterans.”
California Secretary of Veterans Affairs Vito Imbasciani said some veterans and employees at the home were traumatized and Gov. Jerry Brown had offered the state’s employee assistance program, which had already sent counselors to the campus.
When asked whether armed CalVet guards might have stopped Wong, he said that such questions were akin to politicizing the tragedy, though a union representing guards at veterans homes had raised the issue Friday. But Imbasciani said he would take input from every reliable source, including law enforcement.
At the veterans home, those who served in earlier wars passed the building that houses The Pathway Home, which was surrounded by crime tape.
Muriel Zimmer, an 84-year-old Air Force veteran of the Korean War, said she feels badly for Wong, saying she “cannot blame him. It’s because of the war.”
Older vets didn’t always interact with the Iraq and Afghan vets at The Pathway Home, because older vets tended to bring up their own war stories too much with the younger ones, Zimmer said. But she would exchange encouraging words and hugs with vets at The Pathway Home when she could.
“That PTSD program has helped so many, and we are so afraid this is going to affect it,” she said.
This story corrects the first name of Jennifer Golick’s father-in-law.
Forliti reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writers Frank Baker and Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.