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Gunman 'cold as ice' before killing 8 in workplace shooting spree

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Nine dead in workplace shooting
  • NEW: Company officials meeting Wednesday with employees "to grieve and to come together"
  • Girlfriend of suspected shooter says he complained of racial harassment
  • Union says there was no filed complaint alleging racism
  • Suspect had just left disciplinary meeting, police chief says

For more on this story, go to CNN affiliates WTNH and WFSB.

Manchester, Connecticut (CNN) -- Omar Thornton, 34, walked into a room early Tuesday at the beverage distributorship where he worked in Manchester, Connecticut.

Company and union officials played a video. He calmly watched images that purportedly showed him stealing from a truck.

An employee of Hartford Distributors for two years and a driver for one, Thornton was given a choice of resigning or being fired, union and company officials said.

He signed a resignation paper, was escorted out of the room and toward the door. He asked for a drink of water, company CEO Ross Hollander told CNN. That's when all hell broke loose. Thornton pulled out a handgun and began firing, officials said.

Within minutes, the gunman and eight other people were dead, and two others were wounded, according to Manchester police and a union official. Police swarmed to the scene, but never had a chance to talk with Thornton, who apparently shot himself to death in an office.

The shootings left the company, city and state in shock. Relatives and acquaintances said Thornton was known for his steady demeanor.

"My heart and prayers go out to the employees and families of the victims," Gov. M. Jodi Rell said in a statement. "In the wake of this tragedy, we are all left asking the same questions: How could someone do this? Why did they do this? It was a senseless act of violence that has left us all shaken. ..."

Video: Workplace shooting in Connecticut

As police investigate the shootings and prepare to identify its victims, the company will meet Wednesday with employees, some of whom have been with Hartford for 30-40 years.

"They want to meet in private, an opportunity for people to grieve and to come together and to address the remainder of their family members, meaning their employees," said James Battaglio, a spokesman for the family that owns the business.

A girlfriend of Thornton indicated he was a victim of racial harassment at the beverage center, the mother of the girlfriend told CNN.

Thornton told his girlfriend he had reported to a company supervisor and a union representative about the harassment but they did nothing about it, Joanne Hannah said Tuesday.

Teamsters officials deny allegations that Thornton, who was black, snapped because of racial harassment.

Eight people were killed in various parts of the facility, Police Chief Marc Montminy said, and one shot may have been fired outside.

"There were clearly some performance issues," Montminy said.

Warehouse vice president Steve Hollander, who was grazed in the head and arm, said Thornton was "as cold as ice" when he fired, killing two people near Hollander.

Hollander said he thinks Thornton had guns stashed in his lunch box.

"He shot at me twice and hit me a couple times. By just the grace of God, I don't know how he missed me," Hollander told the AP after he was released from the hospital.

Chris Roos, secretary and treasurer of Teamsters Local 1035, which represents the company's drivers, told CNN that Thornton had been accused of stealing "product" off a beer truck on two separate occasions.

Roos said Steve Hollander provided details of the 7 a.m. meeting.

"Omar asked if he could resign, and he signed a resignation paper. The meeting was over. They were walking out of the meeting, and that's when it all happened," Roos said.

Bryan Cirigliano, 51, the shop steward for the union and the union's president, was in the meeting. He was among those killed, Roos said. Other victims were found throughout the facility, police said.

"He was a great guy. Unbelievable family man, " Roos said of Cirigliano. "Very community-active. Loved his daughters, loved his wife."

Joanne Hannah said Thornton showed her daughter, Kristie, a cell phone photo of racial epithets and a stick figure with a noose around its neck drawn on a restroom stall. He was in a stall once and heard a co-worker say "they wanted that n----- out of there," she said.

She said Thornton was one of two black employees. "This poor guy got pushed to the limit."

Kristie Hannah and Thornton spent Monday night in Enfield together, Joanne Hannah said. "She said he acted his normal self."

Joanne Hannah said Thornton got a pistol permit about two years ago. She said she was unaware of the allegations of theft levied against Thornton, a truck driver, but she doubted he was guilty. "He was too honest."

Roos said Thornton never filed a racial complaint with the union or a government agency.

"This had nothing to do with racial stuff. This was a sick individual. He just snapped," Roos said.

James Battaglio, a spokesman for the family that owns the distributorship, said he had no information about the allegations of harassment.

Hannah and relatives of Thornton said the suspected gunman called his mother Tuesday morning and said he had shot five people.

Thornton's uncle, Will Holliday, told CNN affiliate WFSB that in the call, the suspected shooter said, "'I killed the five racists that was there that was bothering me' and he said that's it, the cops are going to come in so I'm going to take care of myself."

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Thornton had financial problems and was hounded by debt collectors for years. He had previously filed for bankruptcy and had student loans.

Police would not release identities of the dead late Tuesday. Montminy said he did not know how many were specifically targeted.

Company receptionist Marissa Busiere told CNN affiliate WFSB she heard another co-worker screaming after shots rang out inside the business.

"'He's shooting! He's shooting! Call 911.' And everyone started running out of the building," Busiere said.

At the time, there were about 35 or 40 people in the office and warehouse, Brett Hollander, the director of marketing and a member of the family that owns the company, told the Hartford Courant.

Three people were rushed to Hartford Hospital, and one of them later died, a doctor told reporters. Police declined to say how many people were wounded.

"Everyone is devastated by this tragic and senseless act," Battaglio, the spokesman for the Hollander family, told the Courant. He said the family intends to focus its attention on the families of the victims.

"This is a tight-knit organization. This is tragic, this is senseless. In addition, they lost people with whom they've been extremely close to over the decades," Battaglio told CNN.

At least one nearby business was closed Tuesday afternoon.

"Pray for the families of the people at Hartford Distributors," a recorded phone message at Fluid Dynamics said.

Roos said employees are still reeling after the violence.

"I'm devastated. I'm trying to think how I'm going to get nine families' lives back in order again and help them cope with this. How can we help them cope with this situation? We're going to try to get employee-assistance people and union therapists to help and speak with these guys," he said.

CNN's Jason Hanna, Phil Gast, Adam Reiss and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.