LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California Christmas Eve shooting rampage by a recently divorced man dressed as Santa Claus left nine people dead at a party at his former in-laws before the gunman took his own life, officials said on Friday.
Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, 45, opened fire with four handguns on about 25 party guests, then used a homemade device to spray the home with a highly flammable gas consisting partly of racing car fuel that ignited in an explosion, gutting much of the dwelling, police said.
The bodies of nine victims, charred beyond recognition, were later recovered from the house in Covina, a suburb 23 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Ed Winter, assistant chief coroner for Los Angeles County, said medical and dental records would be needed to identify the bodies, and autopsies to determine whether victims died in the gunfire or the explosion and fire that followed.
Pardo’s 43-year-old ex-wife, Sylvia, and her parents were believed to be among the victims.
Police Chief Kim Raney said Pardo, who lost his job in October, and his former spouse had just finalized their divorce last week in a contentious proceeding. They had no children together.
Pardo himself suffered third-degree burns in the blast, which melted the Santa Claus outfit onto his body. He then fled to his brother’s house about 40 miles away, where authorities later found him dead from a gunshot wound to the head.
Some $17,000 in cash and airline tickets for a flight from Los Angeles to Canada were found on his body, Raney told a news conference.
Among those who survived the rampage were an 8-year-old girl who was shot in the face by Pardo as she opened to the door for him when he knocked, and a 16-year-old girl who was shot in the back as guests tried to flee.
Authorities had cordoned off the charred house on Friday and had set up a large tent and trailers to process evidence as they searched the rubble. Tow trucks removed burned-out vehicles belonging to party-goers who were injured or killed in the attack.
The gunman began shooting as soon as he entered the house, spraying bullets indiscriminately at first, but seemed to take aim at former in-laws as the shooting unfolded, Raney said.
The house, owned by the parents of Pardo’s ex-wife, was engulfed in flames when police arrived, about three minutes after someone made an emergency call. At least one girl jumped from a second-floor window to escape, Raney said.
Pardo had no criminal record and was a regular usher at his Catholic church.
In a final act of destruction encountered by authorities after Pardo had killed himself, his rental car was discovered to have been booby-trapped with the remnants of the Santa suit rigged to a homemade bomb.
The bomb ignited when authorities tried to defuse the device, engulfing the car in flames, but no one was hurt in the blast, Raney said.
Police earlier said that bomb-making equipment was found at Pardo’s home in the quiet suburb of Montrose, 13 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
Additional reporting by Fred Prouser and Deena Beasley; Editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Trott