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Friday, April 18, 2014

Mass murderer Howard Unruh dies at 88

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Howard Unruh, 88, who became the modern face of mass murder when he shot and killed 13 people in East Camden in 1949, died yesterday.

Unruh was never found competent to stand trial after the killing spree. He spent the rest of his life at Trenton State Hospital after being diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

He was hospitalized repeatedly in recent years. Authorities said he died of natural causes related to old age.

Unruh outlived many who witnessed his rampage, including nearly all the investigators and Charles Cohen, who spent his life waiting to hear that the man who murdered his parents and grandmother was dead.

Cohen, who was 12 at the time and hid in a closet during the spree, died last month and was buried Sept. 6, the 60th anniversary of the crime.

"It came six weeks too late," a tearful Marian Cohen said yesterday, adding that her husband believed his loved ones never rested in peace while Unruh was alive. "He waited and he waited. We talked about it so many times. . . . I feel his spirit with me."

Cohen said that, once Unruh died, her husband had planned to bury all the paraphernalia he kept of that day and to remember the dead with Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning.

"Our thoughts are with the families of the other victims touched by this heinous tragedy," the Cohen family said in a statement released after hearing of Unruh's death. "We know that our family members and the other victims can rest in peace from this day forward."

Unruh's rampage in the 3200 block of River Road of Cramer Hill unfolded Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1949. At the time, it was known as the "walk of death." The 13 victims included three children.

Eventually, after Unruh exchanged shots with police, officers used tear gas to smoke him out of his apartment.

"I'm no psycho," the World War II Army veteran told police. "I have a good mind."

Experts have offered many explanations for Unruh's actions, all fitting what has become the textbook profile of a spree killer: Introverted. Narcissistic. Oedipal. Remorseless.

He had a fascination with guns, which apparently developed during the war. He served with the 342d Armored Field Artillery in Italy, Austria, Belgium, France, and Germany.

His Army commanders told reporters at the time that Unruh was a good soldier who kept to himself. Among recognitions, Unruh held a Good Conduct Medal and two bronze stars on his European medal for his battle participation. He didn't drink, smoke, or chase women, and took orders well, the commanders said.

Unruh's younger brother, James, told reporters he thought the war caused him to snap.

"Since he came home from the service, he didn't seem to be the same. He was nervous. He never acted like his old self," James Unruh said then.

Experts at the time said Unruh more likely had been suffering from mental illness before the war.

He was born Jan. 20, 1921, in Haddonfield. His parents separated and the children lived with their mother, Rita, in Camden.

An average student, he graduated from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and then worked for Curtis Publishing Co. In 1942, he was employed briefly as a sheet-metal worker for the Philadelphia Naval Base until he enlisted in the Army.

He served with a self-propelled field artillery unit and sometimes served as a tank gunner. In 1945, he was honorably discharged.

He returned to live with his mother in Camden, where the two regularly attended Sunday services at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Unruh, born-again, participated in Bible study Monday nights as well.

He took college classes briefly and never held a job.

At home, Unruh listened to somber music, Brahms and Wagner, and constructed a range in the basement where he practiced shooting with a cache of guns he collected. Tall and lanky, he was considered weird by teens who teased him. Although Unruh, known as Junior, dressed nicely, he often wore his Army boots and clutched a Bible as he walked the neighborhood.

To get home, Unruh often cut through a rear yard owned by Maurice and Rose Cohen at 32d Street and River Road, where they ran the local pharmacy. He often had run-ins with the Cohens and other shop owners. Secretly, he plotted to kill them over two years.

After Unruh squabbled with Cohens about a backyard gate, he constructed his own gate that was wrecked by neighborhood boys on Sept. 5.

Unruh told police he planned his killing spree as he sat overnight in Philadelphia through three showings of a double feature - The Lady Gambles and I Cheated the Law.

In the morning, he had a dazed look, his mother later recalled. He threatened her with a wrench and she ran for help. Her son left with a 9mm pistol he'd bought in Philadelphia for $37.50.

Police said he walked River Road in a rampage that lasted 20 minutes, shooting through windows, at passing vehicles, and at pedestrians, and entering shops along the way.

Unruh stopped killing only when he ran out of ammunition, then retreated to his apartment. When police entered, they found Unruh's Bible opened to a passage that spoke of wars that would end the world.

Ron Dale, who still lives in Camden, was 8 years old and waiting to get his hair cut when he witnessed Unruh kill one of the victims. His father never let him attend court hearings, fearing Unruh would be released one day and go after those who helped keep him in custody.

"I figured he would die in there [prison]," said Dale, who is being treated for lung cancer and seemed unfazed by news of Unruh's death. "I'm too old to worry about it and too sick to worry about it. What are you going to do?"

In the state hospital, Unruh spent his time reading, including the Bible, watching television, listening to music, and playing cards. He was still regarded as a loner.

He had visitors over the years, including a fellow World War II veteran who died in 2001. Since then, his health steadily declined, and before his death, officials said, he was no longer lucid.

Unruh has no known survivors.

Copyright: The Philadelphia Inquirer

 
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