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4 dead, 5 injured in 2-day crime spree

Gunman then kills himself in Wal-Mart

By Teresa Rochester trochester@VenturaCountyStar.com and Jean Ortiz jortiz@VenturaCountyStar.com
May 31, 2005 - A former Air Force captain with a violent past shot himself inside a Simi Valley Wal-Mart Tuesday morning, ending a 16-hour rampage that left four people dead and five wounded.

The attacks began in Thousand Oaks Monday afternoon when Toby Whelchel, 38, of Thousand Oaks and formerly Indiana, gunned down two people, including his former attorney, and critically injured another man.

The violence continued Tuesday morning with a deadly attack on a Santa Rosa Valley family and their pool man and the shooting of a sheriff’s deputy. It ended when Whelchel shot himself in the head at the rear of the store as employees and customers fled.

Pursued by deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and Simi Valley Police officers, Whelchel ran into the store with a gun in his hand, witnesses said.

"I just heard boom, boom, boom," said Sue Failing, a store employee. "They just announced it over the P.A.: ‘Get out of the store now.’ "

Whelchel was described by police as having a violent background, having been charged with crimes in Indiana, Florida and California ranging from resisting arrest to battery on a peace officer.

About 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department received a call for help after Whelchel allegedly stole a vehicle from the Santa Rosa Valley home of Carole and Jeffrey Nordella.

Whelchel had entered the home, pistol-whipped Carole Nordella, 48, and two of her children, ages 14 and 10. The family’s pool maintenance man, whose name was not available, was also at the home and was beaten. Whelchel fled in the maintenance man’s black Nissan pickup truck.

Jeffrey Nordella, who was on his way to work, was called by his wife after the break-in. Nordella returned to the home and attempted to block Whelchel’s escape but was unsuccessful, Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

As a result of the beating, Carole Nordella died at Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center. The older child was in serious condition, said hospital spokeswoman Kris Carraway-Bowman. The younger boy was in fair condition on Tuesday afternoon.

The pool maintenance man was taken to Simi Valley Hospital, although the extent of his injuries was unknown.

Police believe the Santa Rosa Valley incident was random and that Whelchel had no connection with the family, Brooks said.

"They were just in harm’s way," he said. "All he wanted was the vehicle."

As he was responding to the call, Deputy Scott Ramirez, 30, spotted the suspect at Santa Rosa and Brittany Park roads, not far from the victims’ home on Rocky High Road.

Whelchel shot Ramirez once or twice in the shoulder and upper chest, Brooks said. The deputy, a 10-year veteran of the department who was wearing a bulletproof vest, was awake and talking and listed in fair condition at Los Robles just hours after the encounter.

Ramirez was able to alert other officers, who, with the sheriff’s helicopter overhead, followed Whelchel to the Wal-Mart.

Deputies trailed him into the store and began evacuating employees and patrons.

Chaos at Wal-Mart

About 100 people were in the store when it was evacuated, said employee Arlene Barnett, who saw Whelchel come through the front doors with a gun in his hand.

Ron Stevenson, 42, of Simi Valley was shopping in the automotive section when he heard "two loud booms." He headed to a back door, unsure what was going on, and saw officers through the door’s glass window with guns drawn.

Officers let him through the locked door, and he told them he heard shots fired, a comment that sprang the officers into action, he said.

"It was like all hell broke loose," said Stevenson, who didn’t see Whelchel.

John Kidd, 62, of Santa Paula had gone to the store to buy oil and window washer fluid when he saw a commotion brewing with the employees. They were talking on walkie-talkies and appeared to be perplexed, he said.

"I thought, ‘Shoplifter,’ " he said. "When I heard ‘pop, pop,’ I started for the door. And then someone yelled, ‘He’s got a gun!’ And I ran faster."

Wal-Mart employees and customers found their way to a Home Depot across the parking lot, where workers brought out bottled water, snacks and lawn chairs with tags still attached to accommodate them.

There, many of the blue-smocked employees answered questions from investigators, chatted with friends or simply stared down toward their workplace through a sea of law enforcement and news media.

The store is set to reopen today at 7 a.m., said Cynthia Lin, director of Wal-Mart’s corporate affairs for California, adding that store associates were cooperating with the investigation. No customers or employees were believed to be injured in the incident, Lin said.

"We’re grateful for that," she said.

Employees were allowed back in the store Tuesday afternoon to collect personal belongings, she said.

Military background

Whelchel, who, according to military documents, was dismissed from the Los Angeles Air Force Base and fined for failing to obey his superiors and repeated failure to report for duty, is believed responsible for Monday’s shooting in the front yard of a Thousand Oaks home in the 1700 block of Montgomery Road. The shooting occurred about 4 p.m.

Jan Heyne, 51, of Thousand Oaks was pronounced dead at the scene, while the home’s owner, Steve Mazin, 52, died at Los Robles. Heyne’s husband, Timothy, also was shot. His condition was upgraded to serious Tuesday.

Minutes after that shooting, Whelchel headed to a Vons parking lot at Janss and Moorpark roads, where he carjacked a white Ford F-150 belonging to Tim Hudgens, 50, of Thousand Oaks. Hudgens said a clean-cut looking man approached him asking politely to borrow his truck.

The man then showed what Hudgens thought was a .357 revolver and told Hudgens to come with him. At first, because of demeanor and neatness, Hudgens thought he might be a cop.

But when Hudgens realized he heard police sirens in the background, he knew this man was not an officer. Hudgens thought he might have just robbed the grocery store.

Hudgens asked the man if he needed any money and threw his wallet toward him, but the man grabbed his arm and told him to get in the truck.

Hudgens said he pulled away and ran off to some other cars nearby, but ducked into the store to call police once he saw he wasn’t being chased.

After he learned that the man had just shot three people, Hudgens said he felt he "was lucky."

While police put out a bulletin with the white truck’s license plate, they held off on offering a description of Whelchel as they continued to confirm their facts and interview witnesses, said Ventura County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Eric Nishimoto.

Using helicopters, police searched overnight for the truck. The vehicle was found Tuesday morning in the 900 block of Bright Star Circle near Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks, Nishimoto said. The vehicle was about a half-mile from the Santa Rosa Valley home where Whelchel stole the pickup truck.

Previous relationship

Whelchel knew Mazin and Mazin’s estranged wife, Joanne, according to court documents.

Whelchel met Joanne Mazin in March 2000 at a festival at California Lutheran University, court records show. The Mazins were involved in a divorce, and Steve Mazin had filed a restraining order against Whelchel — allegedly Joanne Mazin’s love interest, a claim she denied — that was set to expire in December.

Joanne Mazin rented a game Whelchel had developed for her son’s birthday party in April. Following the party, she and Whelchel entered into business together, and Joanne marketed the game in Thousand Oaks.

The pair provided rock climbing walls, a petting zoo, water launchers, a giant slide and race cars for parties and carnivals, according to court documents. Joanne Mazin described her profession as a party planner in court documents filed as part of her divorce from her husband.

Steve Mazin soon became Whelchel’s attorney in several matters, including arrests in Corona and Santa Maria.

The relationship quickly deteriorated, with Whelchel charging that Mazin breached the attorney-client relationship to bolster Mazin’s standing in the divorce proceedings and a restraining order against Whelchel, who allegedly threatened Mazin previously.

Nishimoto would not comment on whether authorities are in touch with Joanne Mazin, or if they knew of her whereabouts. A Dodge truck registered under her name was found at Vons and was described by witnesses as the truck Whelchel left the scene in after the shootings in Thousand Oaks.

Brooks said there was no reason to believe there might be more people involved.

The news of Tuesday’s incident came as a shock to many in the area, who take pride in the cities’ safety records. Here, violence is almost unheard of, said Diana Espinoza, 22, of Simi Valley, who said she was a bit scared after hearing what
happened just down the block from the fast-food restaurant where she worked.

"Not here in Simi," she said of such incidents. "It’s a very quiet area."

The incidents in two of the country’s safest cities is just proof that violence unfortunately can happen anywhere, Brooks said.

"People have evil impulses," he said, "and no community is immune."

— Staff writers Maria Gonzalez, Zeke Barlow, Jean Cowden Moore and Cheri Carlson contributed to this report.

 

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