911 call reveals racial disparity at Conn. beer distributor where driver went on fatal rampage

A woman hiding under her desk tells an emergency dispatcher that a co-worker is in the midst of a shooting spree. The dispatcher presses for any information about the man.

"I don't know anything," the woman says, according to a 911 tape released Wednesday. "He's a tall black guy. He's like the only black guy that works here."

Family and friends say Omar Thornton was only too painfully aware of that distinction, as he claimed he was subjected to racial discrimination while working as a union driver at Hartford Distributors in Manchester.

Authorities say they still do not know what made Thornton snap — to pack two .9 mm pistols in his lunch box and a shotgun in his car before he headed to work Tuesday for a meeting with his union representative and supervisors to discuss his continued employment in what his girlfriend said was once his dream job.

He had been caught stealing beer, union and company officials said, and quietly agreed to resign after he saw the videotape. But then he went on a rampage, killing eight co-workers — some as they ran for cover, others as they warned people to run — and injuring two others before committing suicide.

Company officials have denied to The Associated Press there was any racial discrimination, and the union said Thornton never filed a formal complaint. The president of the family-owned company planned a news conference for Thursday afternoon.

Thornton's girlfriend of eight years, Kristi Hannah, told the AP on Wednesday she knew something was wrong when he left for work a day earlier.

"He just kept having this dazed, confused look on his face, and I never saw him like that before," she said. "I could tell something was bothering him. I asked him what was wrong a bunch of times and he said nothing was wrong with him. ... That's why he gave me a long hug and kiss before he left."

Hannah said Thornton, 34, had complained of racial harassment to her months ago and had shared with her evidence of it: photos of racist graffiti and a surreptitiously monitored conversation allegedly involving company managers.

Union and company officials say Thornton never complained of harassment and there have never been reports of racial discrimination at the company.

A union official described Thornton as a dissatisfied worker whose first targets were the three people in his disciplinary meeting: Steve Hollander, 50, a member of the family that owns the company, who was shot twice but survived; Bryan Cirigliano, 51, president of Teamsters 1035 and Thornton's representative at the hearing; and Louis Felder, 50, who news reports described as the company's operations director.

Other victims were Doug Scruton, 56; Bill Ackerman, 51; Francis Fazio Jr., 57; Edwin Kennison, 49; Craig Pepin, 60; and Victor James, 60. Jerome Rosenstein, 77, was wounded and was in serious condition Wednesday at Hartford Hospital.

Friends and family of those who died said they couldn't imagine their loved ones discriminating against Thornton.

One driver who was killed, Kennison, had mentioned Thornton before but never in a derogatory way, said Mark McCorrison, a close friend. Kennison was not the type to make bigoted remarks, he said.

"I can tell you right now: Eddie is not that person," McCorrison said.

Pepin, also a driver, was never angry, let alone someone who showed any hint of racism or bigotry, said a neighbor who knew him for 25 years.

"Craig, who was active as a coach in town with all kids — all races of kids — for years, he didn't care. He just worked with the kids," Ted Jenny said. "There was no way Craig Pepin was racist."

The only complaint Thornton ever made to the union was when he asked to be promoted from an entry-level job to a driver, said Gregg Adler, a union lawyer. The union explained to him that because of seniority rules, he would have to wait his turn until a job opened up. Eventually it did, and he was promoted about a year ago, Adler said.

Michelle T. Johnson, a diversity consultant and former employment lawyer, said workers who face discrimination are often reluctant to file a formal complaint, even if the misconduct is serious.

"Once a person of color raises an issue of discrimination, the reaction they can get just makes it very stressful," she said.

It's not clear whether every victim was targeted or whether some were shot randomly, Davis said. The victims died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

A funeral for Felder, an Orthodox Jew, was held Wednesday afternoon in Stamford, and a Mass to remember all the victims was held Wednesday evening at St. Margaret Mary Church in South Windsor.


Associated Press writers Stephen Singer in Manchester; Everton Bailey Jr. in South Windsor, Mark Scolforo in Hartford; Lynne Tuohy in Concord, N.H.; and Eric Tucker in Providence, R.I., contributed to this report.