COVINA, Calif. – A man who carried out a Christmas Eve massacre and arson dressed as Santa at the home of his former in-laws apparently intended to flee the U.S., but his plans were dashed after the inferno he created severely burned his arms and melted his red costume onto his body, police said Friday.
Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, a laid-off aerospace worker, apparently shot some of his nine victims execution-style in a plot to destroy his ex-wife's family after a costly divorce that was finalized last week. He had an airline ticket for a Christmas morning flight to Canada and $17,000 in cash on his body, some attached to his legs with plastic wrap and some in a girdle, Covina police Chief Kim Raney said. He did not know the Canadian destination.
Armed with four guns, wearing the Santa suit and carrying a fuel-spraying device wrapped like a present, Pardo showed up at the home at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday as a party of about 25 people was under way.
Raney said Pardo, 45, fired a shot into the face of an 8-year-old girl who answered the door and at first fired indiscriminately, then apparently targeted relatives of his ex-wife as other guests fled.
"There's some information that he stood over them and shot them execution-style," Raney said.
Pardo retreated to the front door and retrieved a device that mixed carbon dioxide or oxygen with high-octane racing fuel, police said. Fleeing guests saw him spraying the fuel inside the house when the vapor was ignited, possibly by a pilot light or a candle, and exploded.
"Mr. Pardo was severely injured during that explosion," Raney said. "He suffered third-degree burns on both arms and it also appears that the Santa Claus suit that he was wearing did melt onto his body."
Before the suicide, Pardo used remnants of the Santa suit to booby-trap his rental car to explode, the chief said.
Raney said Pardo wired the suit so when it was lifted it "would pull a trip wire or a switch, ignite a flare inside the car that would then ignite black powder and he had several hundred rounds of handgun ammunition inside the car."
The device went off as a bomb squad worked to disarm it Thursday, but no one was hurt.
Police said Pardo had no criminal record or history of violence, and neighbors and others knew him as a friendly man who walked his dog and was a volunteer usher at his parish church.
Authorities released 911 calls filled with frantic appeals for help: "My mom's house is on fire!" said a caller phoning from a neighbor's house. "He's still shooting at them!"
The fire was so intense that no bodies have been identified because of charring, but police Lt. Tim Doonan said all were Pardo's former relatives. He declined to say whether his ex-wife and her parents were among them, but said they were unaccounted for. The victims were believed to range in age from 17 to 80.
Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center spokeswoman Adelaida De La Cerda said the 8-year-old girl who was shot in the face was released from the hospital Friday. Her mother had been at the hospital and was "extremely traumatized," De La Cerda said.
Her cousin, a 16-year-old girl brought in for observation, had superficial injuries and was released Thursday. The teenager's mother was Bruce Pardo's ex-wife, De La Cerda said. Also injured was a woman who broke her ankle when jumping from a second-story window.
David Salgado, a neighbor, said he saw the 8-year-old victim being escorted to an ambulance by four SWAT officers as fire devoured the house. He identified the owners of the home as Sylvia Pardo's parents, Joseph and Alicia Ortega.
"It was really ugly," Salgado said.
When the fire was extinguished early Thursday, officers found three charred bodies in the living room area. Investigators found five more bodies amid the ashes later in the day. Coroner's Lt. Larry Dietz said a ninth body was found Friday morning.
Police found two handguns at the home of Pardo's brother, and two more in the Covina home. All were empty.
A search of Pardo's own home in Montrose, a suburb northeast of Los Angeles, turned up racing fuel, five empty boxes for high-powered semiautomatic handguns and two high-powered shotguns.
The police chief said Pardo had no military experience, and in a resume he claimed to have a bachelor's and master's degree in electrical engineering.
Court records show Pardo's ex-wife Sylvia Pardo, 43, filed for a dissolution of marriage on March 24, 2008, and they were legally separated after about two years of marriage. The two reached a settlement on Dec. 18.
Bruce Pardo owed her $10,000 as part of the settlement, according to court documents that detailed a bitter split. He also lost a dog he doted on and did not get back a valuable wedding ring.
"No counseling or delay could help restore this marriage," the settlement stated. "There are irreconcilable differences which have led to the complete breakdown of the marriage."
The couple had no children together, but Bruce Pardo had a son from a previous relationship, Raney said.
Bruce Pardo had been employed at ITT Electronic Systems, Radar Systems, in Van Nuys from February 2005 to July 2008, according to court documents. Raney, however, said Pardo was terminated in October, and according to family members disappeared for a month while possibly traveling to the Midwest or East Coast before returning this month.
Pardo's resume also claimed he worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1985-1994, the police chief said. The lab could not confirm the claim Friday.
Bruce Pardo wrote in a legal declaration that he was laid off in July and had been denied state unemployment payments in August. He said he was "desperately seeking" work with many companies.
"I was not given a severance package from my last employer at termination and I am not receiving any other income. I am desperately seeking work and have since applied to many companies, resulting in several job interviews," he wrote. "I ask for support just until I gain employment."
Bruce Pardo complained in a court declaration that Sylvia Pardo was living with her parents, not paying rent, and had spent lavishly on a luxury car, gambling trips to Las Vegas, meals at fine restaurants, massages and golf lessons.
Documents from the divorce show Bruce Pardo got their house, which was valued at more than $500,000, but the couple only had $106,000 in equity in it. The mortgage was $2,700 a month, a declaration said.
He complained in a filing that he had monthly expenses of $8,900 and ran a monthly deficit of $2,678.
In June, the court ordered him to pay $1,785 a month in spousal support and put him on a payment plan of $450 a month for $3,570 that was unpaid.
His attorney, Stanley Silver, told The Associated Press his client had trouble making the support payments after he lost his job in July, but spousal support was waived in the settlement last week. Bruce Pardo was trying to pay $10,000 to finalize the divorce proceedings, Silver said, and he never showed any anger or instability.
"All of my dealings with him were always pleasant and cheerful," said Silver, who heard from him last on Tuesday.
Friends and neighbors described Bruce Pardo as a cheerful man who seemed upbeat and doted on a big, brown Akita he owned with his former wife.
Jan Detanna, head usher at the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Montrose, said Pardo signed up to usher during the Christmas Eve service and always volunteered as an usher at the 5:30 p.m. Sunday service — the children's Mass.
"He was very outgoing, he was very friendly. He always greeted you with a smile, he was a pretty big guy and had a firm handshake," said Detanna, who didn't know Pardo was going through a divorce. "It's a shock to everybody that knew him. You just don't know what's going on sometimes."
Pardo's neighbor, George Tataje, 39, said his dog and Pardo's Akita would play together at a park, but he didn't speak to him much. Other neighbors frequently saw him working on his lawn and walking his dog.
At his home in Montrose, Christmas lights decorated the roof and plastic nutcracker soldiers and striped candy canes were attached to a fence that edged a neatly trimmed lawn.