Baumhammers still on death row 20 years after killing spree

Bob Bauder And Tom Davidson, Tribune-review
Friday, May 8, 2020

GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) — On a cloudy Friday afternoon 20 years ago Tuesday, an unemployed immigration lawyer went on a killing spree. It started next door to his parents’ Mt. Lebanon home, where he killed his Jewish neighbor. He went on to shoot five more people, all ethnic or racial minorities.

Richard Baumhammers, 54, is on Pennsylvania’s death row for the April 28, 2000, murders. His attorneys argued that he suffered from mental illness and committed the crimes while he was delusional, something prosecutors successfully disputed.

At about 1 p.m. that day, Baumhammers killed Anita Gordon, 63, his next-door neighbor, and set fire to her house. He then traveled to her synagogue in Scott, Beth El Congregation, and vandalized the building, shooting out its front windows and painting swastikas on the facade.

Baumhammers proceeded to a Scott grocery store, where he killed Anil Thukar, 31, and left Sandeep Patel paralyzed from the neck down. Patel died in 2007 at the age of 32.

Next he killed Ji-Ye Sun, 34, and Thao Pham, 27, at the Ya Fei Chinese Cuisine Restaurant in Robinson before driving to C.S. Kim Karate in Center, Beaver County, where he killed 22-year-old Garry Lee, a African-American man from Aliquippa..

Police in Beaver County nabbed him in Ambridge after the Center shooting.

He was convicted in May 2001 of homicide during a trial in Allegheny County and sentenced to death.

Retired Beaver County District Attorney Anthony Berosh, who served as co-prosecutor, said Baumhammers believed he was starting a war.

“His motive, I think, was clear: This is the beginning of a race war,” Berosh said. “All of his targets were minority groups. Somehow in his head he thought he could trigger this racial war. It was white versus everybody else, and everybody else against the whites and whites would prevail.”

Baumhammers isn’t set to be executed anytime soon because of a statewide moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, much to the chagrin of some people who knew the victims and those in law enforcement who responded to the crime.

“It’s disappointing when so many people are left just kind of holding this wreckage in their hands and he’s sitting in jail, OK,” is how Jennifer Thomas puts it.

Thomas and her husband, George, live in Beaver. George Thomas was at the Center karate studio where Baumhammers shot and killed Lee, who was his best friend, his wife said.

Her husband won’t talk about what happened that day, Jennifer Thomas said.

“It’s something that’s always on our minds. It’s something that we think about an awful lot,” she said.

“It’s frustrating. I never would say I hope that person should die, but when you look at the situation and the heartache he caused, it’s hard to not think there’s room for justice in that situation,” she said.

Center police Chief Barry Kramer has written two letters to Gov. Tom Wolf seeking for justice to be meted out in the Baumhammers case.

“By eliminating the death penalty, the void of closure for victims will grow and never be filled. We believe that we must clearly demonstrate to society that murder is an intolerable crime that will be appropriately punished,” Kramer wrote the governor in 2015.

Kramer didn’t receive a response to that letter. He sent a similar letter in 2016, with no response.

The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment for this story.

All of Baumhammers’ appeals have been denied.

Berosh said there’s no question that Baumhammers, whom he considers “totally evil,” deserved the death sentence.

“In my opinion we asked 12 of Allegheny County’s tried and true to give him the death penalty, and they did,” he said. “For me to turn around today and say, ‘No, don’t do that,’ would be a breach of trust in what we asked the jurors to do in the first place.”

Berosh said the most striking thing was how Baumhammers planned the crimes.

“This was no, ‘OK, I got a gun. I’m going to get in a car and see what I can do.’ The planning was almost meticulous,” he said. “I’m convinced he knew exactly how police and emergency services would respond. He knew exactly what direction he had to go and what targets he wanted to hit. There is no doubt in my mind — you can’t prove it — that his next target was going to be the Ambridge synagogue.”

A pizza shop employee next to the karate studio in Center jotted down the license plate of the Jeep Baumhammers was driving and Kramer put out the alert, Kramer said.

When it came over the police radio, it was the start of then-Aliquippa police officer John Frantangeli’s shift.

Because Baumhammers was from the Pittsburgh area, police put out a dragnet on routes south. Frantangeli was sent to Route 51 at the Ambridge-Aliquippa bridge.

“I was actually kind of upset,” Frantangeli, now a Beaver officer, said, because he didn’t think Baumhammers would have used that route.

“Twenty minutes later, he comes driving right up to me,” Frantangeli said.

He verified the plate but refrained from pulling Baumhammers over immediately, awaiting backup in Ambridge. They crossed the bridge and went through two red lights before Ambridge police and Frantangeli converged on the Jeep.

An Ambridge officer unbuckled Baumhammers’ seatbelt and Frantangeli handcuffed him.

They found about 20 live rounds of ammunition in his pockets, and in the backseat of the Jeep there were several Molotov cocktails, Frantangeli said.

“I remember it like yesterday, every time I drive through Ambridge,” he said. “Thank God he complied.”

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