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Notorious Camden killer Unruh dies at 88

Howard Unruh, the World War II Army veteran who became the modern face of mass murder when he shot and killed 13 people in East Camden in 1949, died today. He was 88.

Howard Unruh, the World War II Army veteran who became the modern face of mass murder when he shot and killed 13 people in East Camden in 1949, died today. He was 88.

Unruh was never found competent to stand trial after the killing spree, and spent the rest of his life at Trenton State Hospital, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

Unruh's 20-minute rampage in the 3200 block of River Road of Cramer Hill unfolded on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1949. At the time, it was known as the "walk of death." The 13 victims included three children.

Eventually, officers used tear gas to smoke him out of his apartment.

"I'm no psycho," the combat veteran told police. "I have a good mind."

Experts have offered many explanations for Unruh's actions, all fitting what has become the textbook profile of a spree killer. Introverted. Narcissistic. Oedipal. Remorseless.

He had a fascination with guns, which apparently developed during the war. He served with the 342d Armored Field Artillery in Italy, Austria, Belgium, France and Germany.

His Army commanders told reporters at the time that Unruh was a good soldier who kept to himself. Among recognitions, Unruh held a Good Conduct Medal and two bronze stars on his European medal for his battle participation. He didn't drink, smoke or chase women, and took orders well, the commanders said.

Unruh's younger brother, James, told reporters he thought the war caused him to snap.

"Since he came home from the service, he didn't seem to be the same. He was nervous. He never acted like his old self," James Unruh had said.

Experts at the time said Unruh more likely had been suffering from mental illness before the war.

He was born Jan. 20, 1921 in Haddonfield. His parents separated and the children lived with their mother, Rita, in Camden. An average student, he graduated from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and then worked for Curtis Publishing Co. In 1942, he worked briefly as a sheet metal worker for the Philadelphia Naval Base until he enlisted in the Army.

He served with a self-propelled field artillery unit and sometimes served as a tank gunner. In 1945, he was honorably discharged.

He returned to live with his mother in Camden, where the two regularly attended Sunday services at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Howard, born-again, participated in Bible study Monday nights as well.

He took college classes briefly and never held a job.

At home, Unruh listened to somber music, Brahms and Wagner, and constructed a range in the basement where he practiced shooting with a cache of guns he collected. Tall and lanky, he was considered weird by teens who teased him. Although Unruh, known as Junior, dressed nicely, he often wore his Army boots and clutched a Bible as he walked the neighborhood.

To get home, Unruh often cut through a rear yard owned by Maurice and Rose Cohen at 32d Street and River Road where they ran the local pharmacy. He often had run-ins with the Cohens and other shop owners. Secretly he plotted to kill them over two years.

After Unruh squabbled with Cohens about a backyard gate, he constructed his own gate that was wrecked by neighborhood boys on Sept. 5.

Unruh told police he planned his killing spree as he sat overnight in Philadelphia through three showings of a double feature - The Lady Gambles and I Cheated the Law.

In the morning, he had a dazed look, his mother later recalled. He threatened her with a wrench and she ran for help. Her son left next, with a 9mm pistol he bought in Philadelphia for $37.50.

Unruh only stopped killing when he ran out of ammunition and retreated to his apartment.

In the state hospital, Unruh spent his time reading, including the Bible; watching television, listening to music and playing cards. He was still regarded a loner.

He had visitors, over the years, including a fellow World War II veteran who died in 2001. Since then, his health steadily declined and before his death, officials said, he was no longer lucid.

Unruh has no known survivors.