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March 9, 2018: Gunfire shatters a respite for veterans damaged by war

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March 9, 2018: Gunfire shatters a respite for veterans damaged by war
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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 graduation, 2009

Diplomas and gifts await graduates of The Pathway Home in a January 2009 ceremony at Christian Brothers Retreat & Conference Center-Mont La Salle. This was the second graduating class for Pathway, which provided residential treatment for returning combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville.

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.

Cycle For Sight & Rotary Ride For Veterans

Hundreds of cyclists participated in the annual Cycle For Sight & Rotary Ride For Veterans charity bike in 2018. Cycle For Sight’s primary beneficiaries are Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Pathway Home.

“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.

The Pathway Home to permanently close

Madison Hall, or Building G, was home to The Pathway Home, where a former client shot and killed three staff members March 9, 2018 after taking them hostage.

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.”

The Pathway Home shooting

Public safety officers put up caution tape around the Madison Building on March 10, the morning after a hostage situation at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville. A day-long siege at The Pathway Home ended Friday evening with the discovery of four bodies, including the gunman, identified as Albert Wong, a former Army rifleman who served a year in Afghanistan in 2011-2012.

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.

Pathway Home shootings and the aftermath

Yountville Mayor John Dunbar speaks at a March 19 celebration of life for the three staff members of The Pathway Home who were killed in a shooting 10 days earlier.

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.”

Color guard at Pathway Home workers' celebration of life

Mitch Laing (left) of Healdsburg and Greg Anderson (second from left) of Napa were among about 20 members of the American Legion Patriot Guard Riders holding U.S. flags March 19 outside the Lincoln Theater in Yountville, before a celebration of life in tribute to three employees of The Pathway Home who were shot and killed March 9 by a former client and Army veteran of the Afghanistan war.

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.

The investigation

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.

Pathway Home shootings and the aftermath

Two women embrace at the Lincoln Theater March 19, minutes before the start of a celebration of life for Pathway Home employees Christine Loeber, Jennifer Golick and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba. The three women were killed March 9 by a former program client at Pathway's building on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, only a short walk from the theater.

“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.

Veterans Home

Madison Hall where The Pathway Home was formerly located at the Veterans Home of California at Yountville.

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.

The Pathway Home to permanently close

Veterans Home of California at Yountville lead groundskeeper Mike Chiurco tidies up around the memorial that sprang up near Madison Hall following the fatal shootings at The Pathway Home on March 9. Pathway organizers announced the home's closure on Sunday.

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You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.

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Editor

Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.