NEW HAVEN, Conn. – To those closest to him, Omar Thornton was caring, quiet and soft-spoken. He was excited to land a well-paying job at a beer delivery company a few years ago and his longtime girlfriend says they talked of marrying and having children.
But underneath, Thornton seethed with a sense of racial injustice for years that culminated in a shooting rampage Tuesday in which the Connecticut man killed eight and wounded two others at his job at Hartford Distributors in Manchester before killing himself.
"I know what pushed him over the edge was all the racial stuff that was happening at work," said his girlfriend, Kristi Hannah.
Thornton, a black man, said as much in a chilling, four-minute 911 call.
"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.
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. Relatives of the victims also rejected the claims.
Thornton, who grew up in the Hartford area, complained about racial troubles on the job long before he worked at Hartford Distributors.
"He always felt like he was being discriminated (against) because he was black," said Jessica Anne Brocuglio, his former girlfriend. "Basically they wouldn't give him pay raises. He never felt like they accepted him as a hard working person."
One time Thornton had a confrontation with a white co-worker who used a racial slur against him, she said. Thornton changed jobs a few times because he was not getting raises, Brocuglio said.
"I'm sick of having to quit jobs and get another job because they can't accept me," she said he told her.
Brocuglia, who said she dated Thornton until eight years ago, said Thornton helped her become a certified nursing aide. She said he never drank or smoked and remained calm, even when she would yell or grab him.
"He was such a caring person," said Brocuglia, who is white. "He showed me so much love. He was like a teddy bear."
Brocuglio's sister, Toni, said Thornton would come home and say co-workers called him racial slurs. He was also upset by comments made by passers-by about the interracial couple, she said.
"He just didn't understand why people had so much hatred in their lives," Toni Brocuglio said.
Brocuglio said Thornton put her family up in a hotel after a fire at her house and was "like a second dad" to her children.
"Omar was the best man I ever met in my life," Brocuglio said.
Thornton ran into his own troubles a decade ago when he filed for bankruptcy protection. His debts were discharged in 2001 and the case was closed.
Around that time, Thornton was hired as a driver with Chemstation New England, a chemical company in South Windsor. But he was let go after 10 months, unable to master the mechanical skills involved handling the equipment, said Bruce LeFebvre, the owner.
"He was a real nice kid when he was with us," LeFebvre said. "Certainly I would never have expected anything like this from him."
LeFebvre said Thornton handled it well when he was let go.
Thornton was hired for a warehouse job at Hartford Distributors about two years ago and was later promoted to driver. Drivers can make up to $60,000 and receive excellent benefits, said John Hollis, legislative liaison for the Teamsters who represent employees at the company.
"He had this huge smile on his face" when he was hired, Hannah said.
Thornton seemed happy outside of work, too, playing basketball and video games and occasionally shooting his gun at a local range with a friend.
Thornton and his mother were especially excited when Barack Obama was elected the first African American president, Hannah said. He listed Obama and the gun range among his interests on his Facebook page.
But Hannah said he showed her cell phone photos of racist graffiti in the bathroom at the beer company and overheard a company official using a racial epithet in reference to him, but a union representative did not return his phone calls. Police said they recovered the phone and forensics experts would examine it.
"Nothing else bothered him except these comments he would make about them doing the racial things to him," Hannah said.