Yountville killer was Army veteran who served in Afghanistan

Albert Wong was previously being treated at the center and was asked to leave a few days prior to the shooting

Yountville killer was Army veteran who served in Afghanistan

(Photo/AP)

Jenna Lyons, Sophie Haigney and Lizzie Johnson
San Francisco Chronicle

The man who killed three staffers at a North Bay center for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder was identified Saturday as a decorated Army veteran who served with the military in Afghanistan and had been treated at the center.

Albert Wong, 36, of Sacramento, who had been asked recently to leave the Pathway Home treatment facility in Yountville, was the gunman who killed three staffers at the center, authorities said.

Wong, armed with a rifle, burst into a staff meeting about 10:30 a.m. Friday at the center, located at the Veterans Home of California-Yountville, a 133-year-old residential complex that houses 850 veterans.

Wong exchanged gunfire with a Napa County sheriff’s deputy and took five hostages, authorities said. He released two of the hostages a short time later, then went silent.

Shortly before 6 p.m., law enforcement officers entered the room where Wong had been holed up and found him and the three hostages dead. A knowledgeable source said all four had been shot.

The slain hostages were the Pathway Home’s executive director, Christine Loeber, 48, of Napa; Jennifer Golick, 42, of St. Helena, a clinical director with the center; and Jennifer Gonzales, 32, according to the Napa County Sheriff’s Department. The Pathway Home said Gonzales was a clinical psychologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Military records show that Wong was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army from April 2011 to March 2012, as an infantryman with the rank of specialist E4. He was in active service from May 2010 to August 2013 and previously was in the Army Reserve from October 1998 to December 2002.

While in active service, he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, records show. The medal is given to those who have distinguished themselves “by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service.”

The Sheriff’s Department said Wong had been treated at the Pathway Home. However, he had been asked to leave a few days ago for unknown reasons, said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, whose district includes the center.

Golick’s father-in-law, Bob Golick, told the Associated Press that she had been the one who told Wong to leave the program. He didn’t give a reason, but a friend of the Golick family said outside her home Saturday in St. Helena that it was because Wong “was violent.”

“People were notified that he was violent,” said the friend, who asked that his name not be used. “Nothing was done. All the proper people were notified. ... The Sheriff’s Department, the vets health. Everybody knew. All the flags were there.”

Sheriff’s officials and representatives of the California Highway Patrol, which is leading the investigation into Friday’s incident, declined to comment.

State records show that Wong had a security guard license and a license to carry an exposed 9mm pistol, but that both were canceled in the fall.

Cissy Sherr said she and her husband, Matthew, were Wong’s legal guardians for a time after his father died and his mother developed health problems when he was a boy. He moved back in with them in Millbrae in summer 2013 after returning from Afghanistan, she said.

“It was only for a month. He just needed to decompress,” Sherr said. He had seen rough combat in Afghanistan, he told the Sherrs. He couldn’t sleep at night. Getting back on a normal schedule was difficult.

But he had goals, Cissy Sherr said: He wanted to go back to school to study computers and business. He found the Pathway Home program and was hopeful it would help. He wrote updates to Sherr on Facebook Messenger.

“He was calm and soft-spoken,” Sherr said. “We were so proud of the young man he had grown up to be through the years. His life was not the average life with a stable situation, what with having his dad die when he was so young and his mom not being around to raise him.”

Even during years when they didn’t see each other much, Wong always visited in August on his birthday, Sherr said. But last spring his mother died, and Wong didn’t show up on his birthday, Sherr said. They hadn’t heard much from him lately.

“It was a really rough day yesterday,” Sherr said. “I don’t know him to be that person we were hearing about yesterday. I didn’t get much sleep.”

According to radio transmissions between officers at the scene and dispatchers, Wong burst into the home on Friday wearing “a stash of bullets around his neck” and his waist.

Authorities tried for hours to contact him after he took the hostages, without success, said Sheriff John Robertson. They later discovered he had left his cell phone inside his parked rental car near the site of the hostage taking. It’s not known when he killed the hostages and himself.

The Pathway Home nonprofit leases space on the Veterans Home campus, which is run by the state Department of Veterans Affairs. The center has focused in recent years on post-9/11 veterans from California, many of whom transition to higher education to pursue studies at Napa Valley College, Santa Rosa Junior College and elsewhere. It was a setting of the 2017 fictional movie “Thank You for Your Service,” about a Marine platoon leader with PTSD.

The Pathway Home is known for its sometimes unconventional therapies, which have included swimming with dolphins and holding social events in which the veterans mix with children. About 450 people have been treated at the unit since its opening in 2008, mostly for PTSD, mild traumatic brain injury and other post-deployment mental health challenges.

In an interview with The Chronicle last year when “Thank You for Your Service” came out, Loeber, the Pathway Home executive director, said, “When these people are in combat, their systems are programmed to keep them alive under incredibly stressful situations. Nobody helps them understand that when they get back they have to reprogram their nervous system to operate at a different caliber so they can be successful civilians.”

Loeber, Golick and Gonzales were “brave women (and) accomplished professionals who dedicated their careers to serving our nation’s veterans, working closely with those in the greatest need of attention after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Pathway Home said in a statement.

President Trump offered his condolences early Saturday. “We are deeply saddened by the tragic situation in Yountville and mourn the loss of three incredible women who cared for our Veterans,” he said in a tweet.

Gov. Jerry Brown said flags would fly at half-staff at the state Capitol in honor of the slain hostages, “three people dedicated to serving our veterans. Our hearts go out to their families and loved ones and the entire community of Yountville.”

———

©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service