PHILADELPHIA — A deluded plant worker who thought co-workers were spraying her with toxic chemicals was convicted Monday of two counts of first-degree murder for a 2010 shooting rampage at a Kraft Foods plant in Philadelphia.
A judge questioned why defendant Yvonne Hiller didn't get needed mental health services and how she'd obtained a gun permit.
"Why was it so easy for Ms. Hiller to get a gun?" Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner asked. "How in the world, under Pennsylvania law, could she have been allowed to have a permit to carry?"
Hiller was suspended the evening of Sept. 9, 2010, after making violent, profanity-laced threats against co-workers, but she returned from her car minutes later with a loaded .357 Magnum.
"You cost me my (expletive) job," she shouted at Bryant Dalton before she shot him and two other colleagues, according to Dalton's testimony Monday.
He alone survived, a fact the judge called something of a miracle, given that another person also shot in the neck died.
"It's a matter of inches – millimeters, perhaps – that Mr. Dalton was here to testify today," the judge said.
Lerner, after a one-day nonjury trial, found Hiller guilty of all charges related to the rampage, including reckless endangerment for shooting at several plant supervisors. Prosecutors had agreed not to seek the death penalty. In return, Hiller waived her right to mount an insanity defense or have a jury trial.
Hiller, 45, faces a mandatory life sentence for the deaths of Tatonya Brown, 36, and Tanya Wilson, 47.
"I wish this was a capital punishment (case)," said Dalton, who still has the bullet lodged in his shoulder. "There are families in turmoil right now. People lost their mother."
Brown left behind four children, according to her mother, who had talked to her daughter an hour before the shooting.
"She told me this crazy woman was following (her) all day," the mother, Terral Brown, said afterward. She told her daughter to steer clear of the woman.
Hiller had long complained at Kraft that colleagues were spraying her with chemicals that smelled like deer urine and accused them of being intolerant of her Muslim religion, according to defense lawyers.
They argued for a finding of voluntary manslaughter, based on their client's mistaken notion that she was being harmed. Lerner rejected the argument.
Plant workers who testified Monday described the chaos at the busy plant, where 120 workers make Nabisco cookies and crackers round-the-clock, often wearing ear plugs because of the loud machinery. Union steward Fred Capps said that he was aware Hiller had previously complained about co-workers spraying her with chemicals and that she had been suspended before. He was also present after the argument that night, when company officials took statements from Dalton and others before suspending Hiller.
"She was rambling about the chemicals," Capps said.
Hiller had been escorted out of the plant when she was suspended at about 8:30 p.m. But she soon returned to the guardhouse, pointed a gun at guard Mark Bentley and demanded he open the gate.
Bentley, who wasn't armed, complied. He said he then watched Hiller re-enter the building.
The judge set her formal sentencing for Sept. 24.