May 6, 2005

Police say 2 lawyers' deaths murder-suicide

Note left by one provides no clue about the motive

Leaving a suicide note at home, a lawyer armed with two handguns at the west Houston offices of Cooper Cameron killed another company attorney Thursday before turning a gun on himself, police said.

Houston Police Department investigators said the note did not shed any light on the murder-suicide and had yet to uncover a motive for the shootings, which were reported about 8:40 a.m. on the fifth floor of the Cameron Building at 4646 W. Sam Houston Parkway North.

Police found the bodies of the two men, both in their 50s or 60s, in an enclosed office in the legal department with gunshot wounds to the head.

Police described both as longtime employees and patent lawyers at Cooper Cameron, an oil-industry services company.

Their names had not been released by late Thursday pending notification of relatives.

Investigators said it appeared the two sat facing each other across a desk when the gunman shot his co-worker, and then himself.

Two weapons, a .357-caliber revolver and a semiautomatic handgun, were found on the floor by his chair, said HPD Capt. Dwayne Ready.

Initial reports were that three shots were fired. It was unclear Thursday how many times each man was hit.

A soft-sided briefcase that the gunman brought contained more ammunition, Ready said.

The Cameron building has no metal detectors, he said.

Investigators did not release the contents of the suicide note they found in the man's apartment, but police did say the letter did not offer an explanation for the shootings.

The man was "heavily in debt," according to a news release from the Police Department, though it was not clear whether the financial difficulties were a factor in the killings.

The nine-story building, which houses about 700 employees, was evacuated briefly after the shootings. Workers were allowed to return to their offices except on the fifth floor by mid-morning. Police individually questioned the 50 or so employees who were on that floor when the shootings happened, Ready said.

Of the mood in the offices, Ready said, "I think there are a lot of people just flat stunned."

Firing rumor unconfirmed

Investigators were also reviewing video from surveillance cameras mounted throughout the building, Ready said. Vehicles belonging to the men were in the building's parking garage, but did not provide clues, he added.

Ready said the working relationship between the men was unknown, including whether one supervised the other. Rumors circulating among Cameron employees, that the gunman was about to be fired, could not be confirmed.

Sheldon Erikson, chairman, president and CEO of Cooper Cameron, issued a written statement about the deaths, expressing sorrow and condolences to the families, friends and co-workers of the two men. Erikson's statement said the company was cooperating with the Police Department, and that any additional information would be released through HPD.

The company planned to have counselors at the office today, Ready said.

The shootings coincided with the release of a survey indicating 58 percent of the senior executives polled had been threatened, in person or through e-mail, with assault or death by employees in the last 12 months.

The survey, by Prince & Associates, polled 602 executives responsible for either security or human resources at their companies, which employed 300 to 900 workers.

Eighty-two percent of those surveyed reported that the number of violent workplace incidents had increased in the past two years, said Paul Viollis, president of Risk Control Strategies, the threat management and risk assessment consulting firm that sponsored the survey.

Viollis said although it is too early to understand why the Houston shootings took place, he will be surprised if the suspect did not exhibit typical signs beforehand.

"There are a multitude of reasons" for workplace violence, Viollis said, "but as you look at the empirical data, it's typically the same (type of) person who pulls the trigger, and exhibits the same signs."

Viollis said workplace violence suspects are typically loners whose jobs are extremely important to them, workers who don't take criticism well and who feel like outcasts.

Tom Capozzoli, a tenured professor at Purdue University and an expert in workplace violence, agree that in nearly every case of workplace violence, it is found that the suspect sent signals that went unnoticed until afterward.

The suspect usually makes a decision to commit suicide first, said Capozzoli, then makes a secondary decision, to punish someone he holds responsible for his situation: "He's getting revenge against that person," Capozzoli said.

Ominous prediction

Capozzoli said although little was yet known about the Houston shootings, he was sure of one thing: "It'll happen again. They generally run in cycles, four or five at a time, in different parts of the country."

The reason for the cyclical nature of workplace shootings is largely unknown, Capozzoli said, because so many workplace violence suspects kill themselves.