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Pa. Health Club Massacre: The Women's Stories

(Facebook Photo)
Facebook photo of Mary Primis.

BRIDGEVILLE, P.A. (AP) Mary Primis had already taught several high-intensity fitness classes that day, putting dozens of students through their sweaty paces while barely breaking one herself.

As she kicked off the last class of the evening at a health club in the Pittsburgh suburbs — Latin impact dance aerobics — the 26-year-old Primis shared some big, happy news with the health-conscious women lined up in front of her: She was 10 weeks' pregnant with her first child.

It was 8 p.m. Tuesday, prime time for working out. The aerobics room at LA Fitness was packed with about 20 women. Among Primis' students that night were Heidi Overmier, a hardworking single mom; Betsy Gannon, an X-ray technician who loved walking her dog; and Jody Billingsley, who sold medical supplies and travelled to Florida this year to watch her beloved NFL football team the Steelers win the Super Bowl.


Photos: George Sodini and His Rage Against Women

A few minutes into the routine, a man in black workout clothes entered the room. None of the women paid any attention to him. It wasn't unusual for people to come in and out.

Then the man turned out the lights. He retrieved several guns from a duffel bag. Calmly, he opened fire on the class, spraying dozens of shots. Twelve women were hit.

As screams filled the darkened room, Primis lay in a pool of her own blood, wondering if she and her baby were going to make it. Nearby, two of the women were dead and a third mortally wounded.

The killer, 48-year-old loner George Sodini, didn't know his victims, but he knew their gender, and it was no accident that he chose this place and this time to commit murder. He was a failure with women, always had been. He wanted revenge; he'd make them pay attention.

(AP Photo/Allegheny County Police)
This undated photo released by the Allegheny County Police shows George Sodini.

His victims had been brought together Tuesday night by a passion for physical fitness. They were strong women, all of them. But they were no match for the gunman, who'd been plotting this rampage for at least a year.

They had a zest for living. His mantra, expressed in a Web diary: "Death Lives!"

—-

Mary Primis taught as many as six fitness classes a day at the region's health clubs. She loved helping people get fit, and she was good at it. Even her husband of more than six years — a former personal trainer in great shape — benefited from her workouts.

"She's intense. Great workouts, focused," said Alex Primis, 29, a salesman.

She'd been in and out of their house all day Tuesday, teaching from morning till night. Alex himself took part in her 6:20 p.m. step class at another club.

"See you at home," he told her when it was over.

Tuesday began normally enough for Overmier, 46, a sales manager at an amusement park. Knowing that a colleague was stressed about work, she left a bagel on his desk before he got in. Jeff Filicko preferred doughnuts, but he appreciated the gesture.

"It's always bagels. She always tried to eat healthy," recalled Filicko, the park's public relations manager.

Later on, Overmier attended an employee picnic, then a social event hosted by a Pittsburgh tourism group. After stopping briefly at her home, she drove to LA Fitness.

"She took care of herself," said her sister, Connie Maneck. "If you look at the pictures, she doesn't look 46. She looks 30. I think it was her energy, so positive about everything."

Jody Billingsley's job as a sales rep for a medical technology firm often had her on the road and into hospitals' operating rooms, where she helped doctors install high-tech pain-management devices. She worked long hours.

But Billingsley, 37, also knew how to have fun, cultivating a wide circle of friends. Her annual neighbourhood Christmas party was a hit.

Physical fitness was another passion. A former college basketball player at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, she often ran or biked the hills around her Mount Lebanon home. She joined LA Fitness, a sprawling new club that had opened a few months earlier on the site of a former department store.

After work Tuesday, Billingsley stopped at home briefly. As she pulled out of her driveway — on her way to the gym — she flashed a smile to neighbours Diane and John Williams.

"A big wave to everyone in the neighbourhood when she would drive in and drive out," said next-door neighbour Jim Christner. "I'd never once seen her with a bad attitude."

—-

George Sodini, on the other hand, had a very bad attitude.

The computer analyst from Scott Township was desperately lonely, and he couldn't understand why women weren't attracted to him. He wrote in his diary that he hadn't had a girlfriend since 1984, hadn't had sex since 1990.

"Who knows why," he wrote. "I am not ugly or too weird."

Trying to woo young women, he made a promotional video of sorts that he posted on YouTube, giving prospective girlfriends a tour of the two-bedroom brick ranch he bought in 1996 for $79,000.

On the video, he predicts women "will really be impressed" by his matching living room furniture. The camera settles on a pile of books on the coffee table, including one titled "How to Date Young Women: For Men over 35."

"RDS says I have 15 more years to be successful at this," Sodini says in another YouTube video, a reference to R. Don Steele, the book's 69-year-old author, who dispenses dating advice in books, videos and live seminars and says men should quit being so nice to women.

"My objective is to be real and to learn to be emotional and to be able to emotionally connect with people," Sodini says. "I'm gonna post this and see what comes back."

Evidently, nothing did. As social success continued to elude him, his frustration grew. He began fantasizing about killing women at least a year ago — and formulated a plan. An "exit plan," he called it.

He searched the Internet for information about serial killers, mass murderers and guns. He also researched laws regarding corruption of minors and the age of consent, according to WPXI-TV.

On Monday and Tuesday, Sodini took off from his job as a systems analyst at a Pittsburgh law firm — where he'd worked since 1999 — "to practice my routine and make sure it is well polished," he wrote in his diary. "I need to work out every detail, there is only one shot. ... Total effort is needed." He went to LA Fitness twice on Tuesday before returning again just before sundown for the last time.

A half-hour before the shooting, he called his mother, sounding distraught. Police say he did not disclose his plans to her.

—-

There were four guns in the duffel bag. The killer retrieved three of them.

Sodini stood between Primis and the door. With nowhere to run, she hit the floor. But she couldn't escape the bullets. The first slammed into her left shoulder as she crouched down. The second, about 30 seconds later, went into her upper back. He continued firing, shattering mirrors and plugging the walls with bullets from two 9 mm handguns.

As blood pooled around her, Primis kept still and held her breath, hoping that if the shooter approached, he would think she was dead. She lay like that for what seemed to her an eternity — but in reality was no more than a few minutes — frantic for both herself and the new life growing inside her.

And then it was over.

Sodini shot himself in the head with a .45-calibre pistol. Two women, who had fled the class, ran back in to tend to Primis, who asked one of them to call her husband.

At Allegheny General Hospital, doctors were amazed that the bullet that had slammed into her back didn't kill her, saying its trajectory should have carried it to her lungs and heart. Instead, her shoulder blade acted as a shield, deflecting the round into her ribs and lower back.

The couple got more good news when a sonogram showed that the baby, due early next year, was fine.

"She could've, almost should've, died from it. It's a miracle she's alive, and the fact the baby seems OK too is twice (a miracle)," Alex said.

The first night at the hospital, though, was rough. Primis barely slept; every time she closed her eyes, she flashed back to those awful minutes in the aerobics room.

By Friday, she was up and walking, taking the first painful steps of what is expected to be a long road to recovery.

At a candlelight vigil held in Pittsburgh two days after the shooting, people expressed anger and sadness over the massacre. And another emotion, too: disgust.

Erin Maloney, 49, called Sodini "some sick SOB who couldn't get a girl. But he had a decent job, he owned his own home. He didn't have it so bad." Vincent Cosenza, 46, said the gunman "probably got rejected a lot. But that's part of life. You gotta deal with it."


Photos: George Sodini and His Rage Against Women

Funerals for Overmier and Gannon were Saturday. Billingsley will be laid to rest Wednesday.

Two of four wounded victims who had been hospitalized were discharged by Saturday.

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August 5, 2009 - Fit for Murder: Gunman Shoots Up Pa. Fitness Club

  • Edecio Martinez

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