The widow of one of three people killed in a shooting at a municipal building has filed a federal lawsuit against township officials and a county sheriff, alleging they knew the gunman was mentally unstable and capable of violence but failed to provide security at a township meeting where he opened fire in 2013.
Frances LaGuardia's lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Scranton, also contends that Ross Township's elected board of supervisors provoked the violence by taking Rockne Newell to court over his junk-strewn property, which was condemned and sold at sheriff's sale a few weeks before the shooting.
Newell sprayed dozens of rifle rounds at the supervisors' meeting on Aug. 5, 2013, killing LaGuardia's husband, James LaGuardia, 64, and two other bystanders. Newell pleaded guilty in May and was sentenced to life in prison.
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The township had feuded with Newell over long-standing complaints that he lived in a storage shed, built an illegal culvert and used a bucket outside as a toilet. LaGuardia's lawsuit asserts township officials abused the legal process to harass Newell and, ultimately, to force him off his land.
They targeted Newell because one of the supervisors, Russell Kresge Jr., lived across the street from him and wanted him gone from the neighborhood, the suit said.
"The Ross Township officials took . actions against Newell despite their awareness and knowledge that Newell was mentally and emotionally unstable, volatile and a risk for physical harm to others and that Newell was extremely upset and angry about the threatened loss of his property," the suit said.
Township solicitor John Dunn, who is named as a defendant, declined comment Thursday through an employee of his law office. The other defendants — Kresge, fellow township Supervisors Howard Beers Jr. and Tina Drake, and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Martin — did not return messages left at their offices seeking comment.
The lawsuit said the shooting was foreseeable.
Newell's father, Pete Newell, told The Associated Press two days after the shooting that he had warned sheriff's deputies that his son had been making threats. He quoted his son as saying: "I'm telling you one thing, people are going to die over this." Sheriff Martin told the AP at the time that his deputies took the threat to be against the sheriff's department itself, not against others, and said his department had a long history with Newell.
"This thing has brewed for many years, and I believe it escalated to the point where he took matters in his own hands," Martin said then.
Martin's and Pete Newell's comments were cited as evidence in LaGuardia's lawsuit, which seeks damages in excess of $150,000.