HARTFORD, Conn. – For two days, employees at a beer distribution company puzzled over why an easy-going co-worker with no history of violence would go on a rampage, fatally shooting eight men and wounding two others before killing himself.
Then, the shooter himself told them why.
In a chilling, 4-minute 911 call, Omar Thornton told a police dispatcher how he sought to avenge racial discrimination through the shootings Tuesday at Hartford Distributors Inc. in Manchester.
“You probably want to know the reason why I shot this place up,” Thornton said in a recording released Thursday. “This place is a racist place. They’re treating me bad over here. And treat all other black employees bad over here, too. So I took it to my own hands and handled the problem. I wish I could have got more of the people.”
Thornton, 34, went on his killing spree moments after he was forced to resign when confronted with video evidence that he had been stealing and reselling beer.
The 911 call confirmed suggestions from his relatives and girlfriend that he was angered by what he believed was racist treatment in the workplace.
Hartford Distributors president Ross Hollander said there was no record to support claims of “racial insensitivity” made through the company’s anti-harassment policy, the union grievance process or state and federal agencies.
“Nonetheless, these ugly allegations have been raised and the company will cooperate with any investigation,” Hollander said.
The union said 14 of 69 dock workers, or 20 percent, were racial minorities — four black, nine Hispanic, one Asian.
The idea that Thornton’s motive may not have been retaliation for losing his job has not sat well with many of the people who knew the victims and have firsthand knowledge of the environment inside the enormous distribution center.
“Everybody just thinks this race card is such a wrong thing,” said Michael Cirigliano, whose slain brother, Bryan, was Thornton’s union representative at the disciplinary meeting and the president of the local union.
Michael Cirigliano also spent three decades working at the warehouse before he retired two years ago.
“The Hispanics and the blacks were telling me they’ve never seen anything they’re accusing the company of in the bathrooms or anywhere else at HDI,” he said. “It’s never been separated white, black, Asian. It’s never been like that.”
He said the company had increased its hiring of minorities in recent years.
“They’ve been bringing in more and more minority people to fill the positions,” Cirigliano said. “You could almost go as far as that’s reverse discrimination. They were hiring the groups to balance the workplace, because that’s what we are in America, there’s a balance.”
Anthony Napolitano, the son-in-law of victim Victor James, 60, of Windsor, said James treated everyone equally, regardless of race or religion.
Truck driver David Zylberman, a 34-year employee of the company, said that the racism claims “pissed me off because they were good people.”
Thornton’s ex-girlfriend, Jessica Anne Brocuglio, said he had a history of racial problems with co-workers at other jobs and believed he was denied pay raises because of his race.
She said he told her: “I’m sick of having to quit jobs and get another job because they can’t accept me.”
Thornton’s girlfriend of the past eight years, Kristi Hannah, said he showed her cell phone photos of racist graffiti in the bathroom at the beer distribution company and overheard managers using a racial epithet in reference to him. Police said they recovered the phone and forensics experts would examine it.
The union’s lawyer, Gregg Adler, said the claims of racial mistreatment can be difficult to disprove, but if they had been raised by any employee the union would have acted immediately.
“There’s not even a connection between the violence and the accusations as far as we can tell,” Adler said. “The only people who were targeted were the people who happened to be in his meeting. And then he went to the warehouse, he just killed people who happened to be near the door.”
The 911 operator attempted to keep Thornton on the phone and to talk him into surrendering. Thornton said he would not give up his location in the building and knew police were looking for him.
“When they find me that’s when everything is going to be over,” he said, assuring the operator he was not going to kill anyone else.
He then said he saw a SWAT team and hastened to get off the phone.
“Tell my people I love them and I gotta go now,” he said.
Police found him dead with a gunshot wound to his head.