By Dan Burns
(Reuters) - A 24-year-old Rochester, New York-area woman illegally supplied two of the firearms used in the Christmas Eve sniper deaths of two volunteer firefighters who were responding to a deliberately set house fire, law enforcement officials said Friday.
U.S. Attorney William Hochul said Dawn Nguyen of Greece, New York, acted as a so-called "straw purchaser" for the two long guns used by William Spengler in the pre-dawn attack on December 24. Spengler, a 62-year-old ex-convict who was forbidden to own guns, also had a handgun in his possession, a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver.
Nguyen was arrested on Friday at her home in Greece, a town about 10 miles west of Rochester. She was charged with the federal offense of willfully making a false statement in connection with the purchase of a firearm, according to the affidavit filed with her arrest warrant.
"It is absolutely against federal law to provide any false information" when buying a gun, Hochul, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, said at a press conference in downtown Rochester.
According to police accounts, before sunrise on Monday Spengler set fire to his home in Webster, about 12 miles east of Rochester, then hid with his guns behind a nearby embankment and tree and opened fire on responding firefighters. In the ambush, two were killed, Lieutenant Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka, and two others were wounded, Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino. An off-duty police officer driving past the scene suffered a minor shrapnel injury.
Spengler was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after an ensuing gun battle with police, police said. The remains of a woman authorities believe to be his sister, Cheryl Spengler, 67, were found in his burned-out home, although they have not formally identified the remains.
On the morning of the shooting, police uncovered a typewritten note from Spengler laying out his plan and also referencing his obtaining the two long guns from a neighbor's daughter, police said. A trace of the two guns revealed that was Nguyen.
In June 2010, Nguyen accompanied Spengler to a gun store in nearby Henrietta, police said. In buying the two weapons there, a Mossberg pump-action shotgun and a .223 Bushmaster rifle with a flash suppressor, Nguyen signed papers swearing she was the legal buyer.
When police traced the two guns to her, she initially said she had bought them for her personal protection, but said they had been stolen from her vehicle, according to the police account. Neither weapon had ever been reported stolen, however.
She later admitted in text messages and a phone call to a Monroe County Sheriff's deputy that she had, in fact, bought them for Spengler, and he picked out both firearms, police records say.
The same model Bushmaster rifle was used in the killing of 20 students and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, an event that has ignited a national debate on gun control, particularly the availability of semi-automatic weapons like the Bushmaster. That model was also among those used in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater massacre in July that left 12 dead and 58 others wounded.
Spengler had spent 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer in 1981, authorities said. As a convicted felon, Spengler could not legally own guns.
The note Spengler left behind indicated his intent to kill, police said.
"I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best, killing people," Spengler's note read, according to police.
Seven homes in the neighborhood were destroyed by the fire, and two were uninhabitable, police said.
Funerals for the two slain firefighters will be held in coming days, with Chiapperini's on Sunday and Kaczowka's on Monday.
(Editing by Dan Grebler and David Gregorio)