What began as a bucolic respite for veterans damaged by war ended just a decade later in a hail of gunfire, a stark reminder that war and inexplicable violence can reach into even the quietest of communities.
A year ago this week, a gunman shattered the peace at Yountville’s Pathway Home, killing three staff members – and the unborn baby that one of them was carrying – before taking his own life. The shooter was an Army veteran who had sought help for his PTSD through the Pathway Home, but he had been ejected just weeks before, reportedly after he threatened his caregivers.
In the year since, the Pathway Home has been effectively shuttered as a treatment facility. Sorrow and shock have given way to investigations, finger pointing and a wave of lawsuits.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
A ray of hope in dark times
Amid a widely reported scandal more than a decade ago over mistreatment of veterans at the nation’s premier military and veterans hospitals, officials at Yountville’s Veterans Home of California began plans for a facility that would sound a more hopeful note.
The “Pathway Home” would accept up to 34 veterans at a time, giving them intensive, clinically sound treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an age-old affliction of warriors that had gone by many names, from Soldier’s Heart to Shell Shock to Battle Fatigue.
“Today, we’re looking at not repeating the lack of preparation we saw in the Vietnam War,” Bart Buechner, then-deputy administrator of the Yountville Veterans Home, told the Register in 2007. “What we don’t want to see is the (welcome home) parade go away and expect that life goes on as normal, because it doesn’t. People need help adjusting back to work and their communities. It takes a sustained effort.”
The Veterans Home, a state-owned facility, leased a building, Madison Hall, to the privately-funded Pathway Home for just $1 per year. More than 450 men would eventually go through the program.
The effort garnered national attention – being featured in the documentary “Broken Promises” and later the fictionalized Hollywood film “Thank you for your service.”
A community favorite
The Napa County community rallied around Pathway in a big way, with high profile community members and service groups hosting fundraisers, visiting the men at the home, and even leading bowling nights and other outings to give the Pathway members a gentle reintroduction to civilian life.
By 2009, Napa’s Rotary Club had become a leading supporter of the program, donating money and time. The club has given at least $700,000, leaders say, including a significant portion of the money raised by the annual “Cycle for Sight” bike ride. Local Realtors had given at least $56,000, with other individuals and groups stepping up as well to share money and time.
“We’re not therapists,” Steve Orndorf, longtime Kaiser Steel and Napa executive, told the Register in 2010 about the public’s efforts to help the Pathway residents. “It is amazing when you do hear their stories, but primarily we just provide some companionship beyond what goes on” at the Pathway Home. “I view our relationship as offering some relief from the structured environment up there.”
A new beginning
But despite the attention and love of the community, the program struggled to fully fund the expensive and intensive treatment the former soldiers required. After an initial $5.6 million private endowment expired in 2010, staff found itself in a constant search for grants and gifts to raise at least $1.2 million per year.
That struggle reached a crisis point in September 2015, when longtime Executive Director Fred Gusman left abruptly and the program suspended operations while it looked to restructure.
After more than a year of uncertainty, Pathway returned in 2017 under new Executive Director Christine Loeber, with a new partnership with Napa Valley College to provide services to veteran students, and an infusion of resources from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other sources.
Loeber and other staff made the rounds of local service clubs, officials, and community movers, who all came away believing that Pathway Home’s future was finally assured.
Then came March 9, 2018.
A day like any other
The day started routinely enough, with staff gathered for a going-away party for several staff members.
Shortly after 10 a.m., a 36-year-old Army veteran named Albert Wong arrived on the grounds of the Veterans Home. Investigators say he had spent the morning at his Sacramento-area home searching websites for information on committing murder and committing suicide. Later lab tests showed he had been drinking.
He was also heavily armed, carrying a shotgun and rifle, both legally purchased less than a month before from area gun stores.
Investigators say he entered the Pathway Home building surreptitiously, using a side door that had been propped open. They say the gunman himself had propped that door open the night before in preparation for the attack.
Once inside, he outfitted himself with tactical gear – goggles, ear protection, and extra ammunition magazines. He kicked open the door from the basement, walked up two flights of stairs and entered the second-floor room where the goodbye party was underway.
At gunpoint, he ordered most of the staff to leave, but held back Executive Director Christine Loeber, 48, Clinical Director Jennifer Golick, 42, and psychologist Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, 32.
The long wait
Frantic calls by staff to 9-1-1 started at 10:22, according to dispatch records, with callers reporting that a former resident at the home was holding hostages and “seems emotionally upset.”
Law enforcement from across the region swarmed to the scene, but first to arrive was Napa County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Lombardi. Knowing the urgency of the situation, he entered the building alone, armed with a rifle, and ascended to the second floor.
Lombardi cleared those who remained in the hall, then pushed open the door to the room where the gunman and hostages were, investigators say. In a hectic flash, he saw what appeared to be a rifle barrel. He heard the sound of the weapon being racked, followed by a woman’s scream.
The deputy stepped back and opened fire through the door, shooting 13 times toward where he believed the gunman stood. The man inside fired back through the door 22 times. Remarkably neither man was stuck during the exchange, investigators say.
Then all was quiet.
Other officers relieved Lombardi and more than 100 officers from 16 agencies settled in for a prolonged siege.
Efforts to reach the gunman verbally or by phone went unanswered.
For more than seven hours, it was unclear what was happening, and hope remained that the women might be alive.
At 5:45 p.m. a robot controlled by the FBI entered the room and learned the truth – as he was exchanging fire with Lombardi, the shooter had taken the lives of all three women and then turned his gun on himself.
Shock and horror
As hope died that afternoon, even worse news emerged. A fourth victim was added to the list – Shushereba was six months pregnant at the time and the child did not survive.
Even as the families grieved, the community struggled to come to terms with what had just happened.
“They were amazing, amazing women with a heart for giving,” Army veteran and former Pathway Home client Steven Roy said. “They dedicated their lives as civilians to help out guys like me … They gave their lives for their country as much as any guy who died on the battlefield.”
The community also struggled to reconcile what had happened to Wong, who was described by friends and family as a quiet and respectful man who had always aspired to a career in the Army. His two years in Afghanistan changed him.
“The shooter was dealing with real demons in his life, which got the best of him,” said Dorothy Salmon, chair of the Pathway Home board of directors, in the days after the shooting.
The six veterans remaining in the Pathway Home were quickly moved to other facilities and the building was shuttered.
After the searing events of March 9, investigators began the long, slow work of piecing together what happened. The lead agency on the probe was the California Highway Patrol, since the Veterans Home sits on state land.
For nearly eight months, there were few new public developments in the case, but in November, District Attorney Allison Haley issued her report, saying that Lombardi had acted appropriately during the incident and that she did not intend to file criminal charges against him or anyone else in the case.
Weeks later, the CHP issued its own report, which had previously been supplied to Haley, detailing the events leading up to and during the incident. Investigators found no evidence that the story was anything other than originally reported – the gunman took his own life after killing the women. The CHP found no evidence that the deputy’s bullets had struck anyone inside the room.
The report, however, didn’t tell the whole story, at least publicly. The document contained several pages of recommendations based on the investigation, but virtually all of them were blacked out, leaving many questions about what the CHP may have concluded.
Attorneys for the three families, meanwhile, started signalling that they would sue several of the agencies involved with the Pathway Home and with the response to the March 9 shooting. As of March 1, all three had sued, saying that the state, the Veterans Home, and the Napa County Sheriff’s Office had failed to protect the lives and safety of the employees at the Pathway Home.
They pointed to several pre-shooting reports from various agencies that noted the lack of basic security at the Vet Home campus. They say that officials failed to warn the staff that Wong had made threats against them. And they say that Lombardi acted wrongly when he responded to the shooting.
The Sheriff’s Office has had relatively little to say about the day of the incident, and Lombardi, speaking through a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, has declined to discuss the matter with the media. The CHP has largely declined to discuss the matter, beyond the heavily redacted report released in November.
The future of the Pathway Home
It is clear that the Pathway Home as it existed before the shooting is gone. The facility at the Veterans Home remains closed and the organization gave up its lease in July. There are moves by lawmakers in Sacramento to renovate the building to provide general housing at the home.
Board members and friends of the organization, however, are quick to point out that Pathway Home lives on in some form. They plan to continue as a fundraising organization, using donations to help fund other PTSD treatment facilities across the country.
“The idea of the [effort] is to create a guide to what The Pathway Home learned over 10 years, in building an organization that was tightly knit to the local community – and that’s a very different model than many VA programs which typically don’t have a lot of community involvement,” Pathway spokesman Larry Kamer said in August.
The names and work of the women killed that day also live on.
In the fall, the New England Center and Home for Veterans named a medical clinic after Loeber, who had previously worked for the center’s parent organization.
Around the same time, Petaluma’s Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services, a residential treatment program for adolescents suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, established a scholarship in the name of Jennifer Golick, a founding member of the organization.
At the former Pathway Home
Today, there are a few ghostly remnants of March 9. The doors of Madison Hall, the former Pathway Home, are locked and plastered with “No Trespassing” signs.
Outside is a wooden placard lettered “Love from family,” a stuffed turtle and two snow-white teddy bears, one holding a palm-size American flag in its left hand. On top of the Madison Hall sign, a blue-and-gold medallion with the logo of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a war from which many Pathway Home residents returned.
Nearby a cable spans a cypress and a palm, supporting a simple sculpture similar to an installation planted on the nearby ground in the weeks after the killing: a trio of hearts shaped from bent, red-painted metal in memory of three women who had worked, and died, within Pathway’s walls.
One of the hearts contains a smaller heart nestled within – in the same way that an unborn daughter had been within Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba on that terrible day.
Register reporter Howard Yune contributed to this report.
YOUNTVILLE — Outside of Madison Hall at the Veterans Home is a splotchy cream wall, where someone has haphazardly painted over brick red letters that once read “THE PATHWAY HOME.”
The building has remained shuttered during the past year and the Pathway Home has stopped treating patients. Unlike the letters outside of Madison Hall, the trauma of that day can’t so easily be erased.
The crime scene that law enforcement saw on March 9, 2018 was so disturbing that the FBI agents who uncovered it remain haunted by what they saw.
“That is a poison that law enforcement drinks and has to live with,” said John Bennett, who heads the FBI’s San Francisco chapter. “You don’t just walk away from that.”
The FBI was the last of four agencies to arrive on the scene of the Pathway shooting. Napa County Sheriff’s Office, Napa Police Department, California Highway Patrol and FBI all worked together in the hours after shots rang out from Madison Hall, on a crime scene described by some as chaotic.
The events of that day have spurred change at the campus, which is the largest of its kind in California and was called the “crumbling crown jewel” of the state Veterans Home system in a 2017 Little Hoover Commission report. The Yountville campus can house up to 1,000 veterans and their spouses, and is among the oldest and largest in the nation, according to the report.
CHP, which usually oversees state buildings because it is a state agency, has resumed responsibility for law enforcement services at the Home after nearly two decades of oversight by the Sheriff’s Office.
Of the four agencies that responded to the Pathway shooting, the FBI was the only agency to grant an interview for this article. CHP insisted on issuing prepared statements.
The Napa Police Department deferred to the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office said Deputy Steve Lombardi, who traded fire with the gunman, was a hero but declined to comment further citing the possibility of litigation. The Sheriff’s Office deferred to Napa County Counsel to elaborate, and a county attorney said the office could not comment on pending or potential future litigation.
Bennett of the FBI remotely oversaw the FBI’s coordination with local agencies on the day of the shooting. It’s unusual for the bureau to respond to an active shooter call, especially one involving hostages.
The scene was chaotic, he said. People wandered around the open campus, media personnel were scattered about the scene, and law enforcement worked to bring order to the site.
It was also an unusual call, Bennett said, because active shooter incidents tend to be over quickly. The impasse ended about seven hours after shots rang out in Madison Hall, when the FBI sent up a robot and found four bodies.
“It was over before we even got there,” he said. “We just didn’t know that.”
Bennett noted that two months before the attack, the FBI trained 30 local officers, including some from the Sheriff’s Office, and practiced responding to an active shooter at the Napa Valley College library. The training was scheduled at the request of Napa law enforcement, he said.
“If we think that we’re above or beyond a major incident happening ... then we’re not doing what the public pays us to do,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. John Hallman at the January training session.
Keith Behlmer, a retired Napa Sheriff’s captain and former office spokesperson, was ready to go into retirement March 9, the last day of an administrative leave. He was at home when a reporter called him and asked for comment on what was happening in Yountville.
Behlmer said he hung up the phone and started making calls, trying to figure out what was going on, and the sheriff asked him to respond to the Veterans Home. Behlmer, who spent three decades of his career on a SWAT team, helped manage the scene.
Four law enforcement agencies were on site and it was unorganized, as active shooter sites typically are, he said. Everyone wants to help, but officers don’t know where colleagues from other agencies are.
“It gets chaotic because you don’t have a system in place,” he said.
Behlmer said it was a bittersweet end to his career. It was horrific that three people were killed, but rewarding to watch his team do good work, he said. Deputy Lombardi risked everything to save the people inside Madison Hall, knowing that he was facing an armed veteran.
“The heroism he showed that day … it was just incredible,” Behlmer said.
The incident touched off a series of meetings between the Sheriff’s Office and CHP, which resulted in the canceling of a years-long agreement that made the Sheriff’s Office responsible for handling law enforcement calls on the campus. The home also has its own security force, armed with batons and pepper spray but no firearms.
CHP declined to make anyone available for an interview and communicated through email.
CHP said it had once provided law enforcement services to the campus, but entered into an agreement that transitioned responsibility for the campus to the Napa County Sheriff’s Office in November 2001.
CHP said it resumed responsibility for law enforcement services in October 2018.
Behlmer, retired Sheriff’s Office captain, speculated that his former colleagues would welcome the change.
“It was long overdue,” he said.
The California Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the Veterans Home, declined to make Frederick Just, who was sworn in as head of the Yountville campus in June, available for an interview. The department wants the Home to instead “focus on our staff and our residents,” said department spokesperson Lindsey Sin. The department emailed responses to written questions.
Sin wrote that CHP has had an increased presence on the campus since March 9. She said she would not elaborate further on security information.
She noted that Pathway’s lease made it responsible for its own security and emergency preparedness plan.
The Veterans Home campus has seen some changes in the past year, but the state law enforcement union says there’s more to be done.
The campus employs the wrong type of security guard to protect residents and visitors, and staffing levels are low, said Ryan Navarre, an attorney with the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association. Officers are often alone while on duty, but two or three should ideally be on duty working together. Large facilities, such as the Veterans Home, can become a target for violence, he said.
“Everything we’re talking about … was talked about before this tragedy,” Navarre said. “This is something we’ve identified years and years ago as a need.”
The state hires different kinds of security guards, but the Yountville campus employs a type of security guard known as a firefighter security officer.
Guards patrol the campus in black and white cars marked by a seven-point star. A member of the public might think firefighter security officers are actually sheriff’s deputies, he said.
CSLEA advocated for the state to hire the same kind of officers employed in state hospitals, known as hospital police officers. Hospital police officers still aren’t an ideal fit, but have a higher level of authority and training, he said.
“It’s leaps and bounds better than what they’re currently employing,” Navarre said.
Most CHP officers wouldn’t even qualify to be a firefighter security officer, because the position requires a year of education or experience as a firefighter, Navarre said. This limits the pool of eligible officers and requires officers to have training that they don’t really use on the job, he said.
The union tried to push the state to hire a different type of security guard before the shooting, but ramped up its efforts after the incident. It argued that the Veterans Home security guards needed more training and equipment.
“For the first time, the department decided to do something,” Navarre said.
For a time, it seemed the state veterans department, known as CalVet, agreed firefighter security officers were not appropriate guardians of the campus.
CalVet wrote in an August letter to the state’s HR department that the “positions are misallocated due to a current contract with the County of Napa,” which has provided firefighting services to the campus for the past 16 years. The county has leased a firefighter training facility on the property since 1997, according to a recent state audit.
Veterans Home security guards no longer fight fires, CalVet wrote. It is the only one of eight Veterans Home campuses that employs firefighter security officers. Hospital police officers would “allow the veterans home to provide services that are more closely related to the needs of the home,” CalVet wrote.
The letter referenced a Sacramento Bee article on a California Highway Patrol site assessment that recommended the campus install security features such as a security checkpoint, front gate, fencing, working locks and intercoms.
The report “insinuated that the State of California was not doing enough to protect its residents,” CalVet wrote.
Months later, in December, the department withdrew its request to hire hospital police officers.
“We determined that the increased CHP presence and our existing public safety force provides an appropriate level of security,” wrote CalVet spokesperson Sin in an email.
Sin wrote that firefighter safety officers receive a higher level of training than the security guards who work in other state veterans homes. An online job description shows the security guard and firefighter security officer positions are similar, except the former can’t fight fires. Officers at the Yountville campus have fought fires in the past, Sin said.
Sin noted that veterans homes are different from state mental hospitals. They are intended to be residential communities where veterans can come and go.
“They are not military bases, nor are they state hospitals where residents are involuntarily placed or committed to a treatment facility with lock downs and security perimeters,” Sin wrote.
The safety and well-being of staff and veterans is a top priority, Sin wrote. CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani wrote that the department will keep the victims’ families, friends and co-workers “close to our hearts” as the year anniversary of the incident approaches.
Last week attorneys for the victims’ families filed wrongful death lawsuits against various state agencies, including CalVet, Napa County, the Sheriff’s Office and the deputy who traded fire with the gunman. They argue that the deaths of their loved ones were foreseeable on a veterans campus, where it’s likely that some residents have access to weapons and are mentally ill, and could have been prevented if better security measures were in place and public agencies had responded in a different manner.
Cassidy Nolan — who served two tours in Afghanistan, formed Napa Valley College’s student veteran group and served as a liaison between the college and Pathway Home — doesn’t think the Veterans Home or a cash-strapped nonprofit could have done anything to stop such an attack.
Clients weren’t allowed to have weapons. The campus has its own security guards. The deputy arrived minutes after law enforcement was alerted of a possible active shooter situation on campus. The gunman’s access to the building was revoked, but even if it hadn’t been, he might have asked a friend to let him in the building, he said.
If the gunman was determined to carry out the attack, Nolan believes he would have found a way.
Having intense security protocols, like armed guards, would have been at odds with Pathway’s mission as a place of healing, he said. How could veterans relax and be receptive to help if they felt their care providers didn’t trust them?
He likened arguments in favor of stronger security at Pathway to debates over whether teachers should be armed in hopes of preventing school shootings.
“Is it a prison or is it a place where people are … feeling at ease?”
The women leading the Pathway Home were pioneers, he said. It was a revolutionary program because vets would otherwise have to go to an understaffed Veterans Affairs health care facility. Clients were housed, fed and going to school.
Nolan was in class at UC Berkeley when the shooting happened.
Calls and texts flooded his phone. He read an article about the hostage situation online and began to picture himself in the room, as if it were happening to him.
It was surreal, he said. Nolan never met gunman Albert Cheung Wong, 36, but felt a sense of responsibility for the attack because he had advocated for veterans to get help there.
So Nolan coped the same way he did in Afghanistan, where he learned to move forward by casting aside his emotions. Months later, he let himself grieve.
Those touched by the shooting are still grappling with the events of March 9, 2018. On a recent day at the Veterans Home campus, a man crouched near the Madison Hall sign at a memorial for Christine Loeber, 48, Jennifer Gray Golick, 42, and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, 32, who was nearly seven months pregnant with her daughter.
“Everybody has families, everybody has wives and sisters,” said Bennett of the FBI. “It really kind of hurts when this was resolved the way this was.”