|“||I'd have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets.||”|
Howard Barton Unruh was a schizophrenic spree killer and family annihilator who killed thirteen people during a shooting rampage on September 6, 1949. His rampage has since been named The Walk of Death.
Unruh was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1921. His father was Samuel Shipley Unruh and his mother Freda E. Vollmer. He and his brother, James, were raised by the mother when the parents separated. His childhood was reportedly normal, though he was quite shy and moody. He was also a regular church attender. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in World War II as a tank driver, taking part in the Battle of the Bulge and fighting in Belgium, Austria, Germany and France. He was also a very skilled marksman and kept notes of every German he killed, documenting the time and place of where he did it and writing descriptions of the bodies if he saw them. After being honorably discharged in 1945, he returned home and moved in with his mother, bringing a collection of firearms, medals and photos of German artillery with him. He also brought some German shells and used them as ashtrays. One of the guns he brought home was the Luger he later used in his spree. He decorated his room with his collection and also set up a target range in the basement. Unruh spent the remainder of his free life living with his mother, who supported him by working as a packer for a soap manufacturer. He spent three months studying pharmacy at Temple University in Philadelphia, but dropped out, and also made and sold some model trains. He regularly attended church and read the Bible; according to his brother, the war had turned him into a born-again Christian. During the months leading up to his spree, he spent less and less time outside the house and became more and more suspicious of his neighbors, who thought he was strange and made fun of him for being a "mama's boy", to the point of paranoia. He wrote about them and what he thought they said about him in his diary, marking some names with "retal", short for "retaliation".
Killing Spree, Capture and Institutionalization
"When I came home last night and found my gate had been taken, I decided to shoot all of them so I would get the right one."
The moment Unruh snapped is believed to have been on September 6, 1949 when he came home from the movie theater at 3 a.m. and discovered that the gate of his home had been stolen. He got inside, went to bed and slept until 8. After having breakfast in the morning, he put on his best attire, a brown tropical-worsted suit, a white shirt and a striped bowtie, armed himself with a 9mm Luger P08 from his collection, 33 rounds of ammunition, a knife and a tear gas pen with six shells and then went to the neighborhood around 32nd Street and River Road in the Cramer Hill area. The exact order of what happened during what became known as the "Walk of Death" varies between sources, but it's known that he left the house at 9:20 a.m. and embarked on his spree. Over the course of 20 minutes, Unruh shot and killed 13 people using only 14 shots. Three additional people were injured. According to TruTV, he started shooting at the corner of 32nd and Harrison. The target was the driver of a bread delivery truck. Unruh shoved his gun through the door and fired, missing by mere inches. The driver grabbed two children who were playing on the street, took them into his truck and drove away from Unruh, trying to warn people. Unruh then went to the workshop of cobbler John Pilarchik, who had been on his personal "list", and shot him dead.
At first, people mistook the gunshots for the sound of a car backfiring or someone shooting at vermin. Unruh's next stop was the barbershop neighboring Pilarchik's workshop, where he killed barber Clark Hoover, 33, and the six-year-old boy whose hair he was cutting, Orris Smith. For some reason, Unruh spared Smith's mother, who was present. He then reloaded and went to a drugstore owned by Maurice and Rose Cohen, who lived in the house next to his, and killed four people in the house. The first to die was an insurance agent who just happened to be there, James Hutton. When Unruh saw Dr. and Mrs. Cohen flee, he followed them inside the house. When he saw Rose Cohen hide in a bedroom closet, he first fired three shots through the closet doors, then opened them and executed her with a shot to the head. When he found Dr. Cohen's mother, Minnie Cohen, on the phone trying to call the police, he killed her as well. When he saw Dr. Cohen escape through a window, he leaned outside and shot him on the street, injuring him. He then jumped out the window himself and finished Dr. Cohen with a second shot. Only one person escaped the massacre: the Cohens' 12-year-old son, Charles, who hid in a closet. Unruh then targeted Mrs. Harrie and her 16-year-old son, Armond. Both were hit in an arm, but survived. Unruh then started firing at cars, killing two women, 38-year-old Helen Wilson, and her mother, Emma Matlack, and injuring Wilson's 9-year-old son, John, who died the next day. He also shot and killed a TV repairman, Alvin Day, and injured 18-year-old Charlie Peterson, who fled into a tavern. While he was firing at random cars and at a grocery store, the tavern owner, Frank Engel, managed to shoot Unruh in the thigh with a .38, but the injury did nothing to slow him down. Engel later expressed regret that he didn't shoot him again to kill him. Afterwards, Unruh went to a tailor shop, intending to kill the owner. When he found that he wasn't in, he killed his wife, Helga Zegrino, instead. Unruh's final victim was 2-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who was shot through a window when he looked through it.
When Unruh heard police sirens in the distance, he returned home. Believing there to be more than one gunman, 50-60 policemen set up around his house, armed with rifles and machine guns. While the siege was ongoing, an assistant city editor of the Camden City Courier, Philip W. Buxton, found Unruh's phone number in the phone book and called him. He talked to Unruh, who spoke in a very calm and normal tone, and asked him about what he had done. Their conversation was cut short when the police fired tear gas grenades into the house. When the first one turned out to be a dud, Unruh went to another room. Five minutes later, he surrendered and allowed himself to be arrested. He was taken to City Hall to be interrogated and confessed to everything, describing each shot in detail. He explained that he shot James Hutton because he didn't get out of the way quickly enough. Nobody but Unruh noticed the bullet wound in his leg before the questioning was finished. He was treated for it at Cooper Hospital, where his victims were also being treated or kept in the morgue. The wound was treated, but the bullet couldn't be extracted. When he had recovered enough to leave the hospital, he was institutionalized at the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (currently named the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital), where he was evaluated by psychiatrists. He was charged with 13 counts of "willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought" and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery". After two months of examinations, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and sentenced to spending the rest of his life at the hospital, where he remained until his death. Still considered a loner, he spent his time listening to music, reading, watching TV and playing cards. He had a few visitors over the years, among them a fellow WWII veteran. In 2009, he passed away after a long illness at the age of 88.
Unruh targeted random people, shooting them with a 9mm Luger P08 handgun. He had some prior contact with some of his victims, such as the Cohens.
All of the following were attacked during Unruh's September 6, 1949 murder spree
- John Joseph Pilarchik, 27 (shot twice in the stomach and head at a cobbler workshop)
- The barbershop shooting (both were shot in the head):
- Orris Martin Smith, 6
- Clark Hoover, 33
- The drugstore shooting:
- James Hutton, 45 (incidental; shot him in the head when he wouldn't get out of the way)
- Dr. Cohen and his family:
- Rose Cohen, 38 (Cohen's wife; was shot in the head)
- Minnie Cohen, 63 (Cohen's mother; was shot twice)
- Dr. Maurice J. Cohen, 39 (shot twice)
- The shooting at the corner of 32nd Street and the Delaware Riverfront:
- Helen Wilson and her family:
- Emma Matlack, 68 (Wilson's mother)
- Helen Wilson, 38
- John Wilson, 9 (Wilson's son; survived his gunshot wounds, but died the next day)
- Alvin Day, 24 (shot him when he slowed down to examine James Hutton's corpse)
- Helen Wilson and her family:
- Helga Kautzach Zegrino, 28 (incidental; shot at her husband's tailor shop)
- Thomas Hamilton, 2 (shot in the head through a window in his apartment)
- Unnamed truck driver (shot at in the corner of 32nd and Harrison Street, but barely missed)
- The Harrie house shooting (both were shot in the arm):
- Madeline Harrie, 36
- Armond Harrie, 16 (Madeline's son)
- The shooting at the corner of 32nd Street and the Delaware Riverfront:
- Charlie Peterson, 18
- Numerous unnamed motorists (shot at; missed all of them)
- Numerous unnamed people (shot at them from outside a grocery store, but missed)
On Criminal Minds
- Killer Profile' - Unruh was one of the rampage killers mentioned by Max Ryan in his book Serial Killers and Mass Murderers: Profiling Why They Kill, which copycat serial killer Daniel Dryden used as a reference for his crimes, though it's uncertain whether or not he truly intended to copycat Unruh since it would have been very difficult to get away with it.
- Season Seven
- "Dorado Falls" - While never directly mentioned or referenced in this episode, Unruh appears to be a major inspiration for the episode's unsub, Luke Dolan - Both are psychotic spree killers, mass murderers, and family annihilators who served in some branch of the U.S. military (the NAVY Seals in Dolan's case, the Army in Unruh's), were skilled marksmen, were discharged prior to their sprees, both re-established their lives partly in scientific endeavors (Dolan worked at a biotech company, Unruh was studying pharmaceuticals in college before dropping out), their sprees were triggered by paranoid beliefs that people were conspiring against them (Dolan believed his family had been abducted and replaced by "imposters", while Unruh's home gate was missing and he believed someone stole it), they also projected their paranoia onto their neighbors, and in their killing sprees they shot their victims with a handgun (though Dolan used other weapons too), systematically committed the massacres with military training and position, killed exactly 13 victims (though Dolan may have killed more, and not all of them were killed in his spree), and were both arrested and apprehended on the same day.
- Season Thirteen