She's sorry she killed, but victims' kin don't want her freed Medicine curbs psychotic urges of woman who went on rampage.

March 20, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

PHILADELPHIA -- Sylvia Seegrist goes to aerobics five times a week, takes physics and writing courses for college credit, works in the prison laundry and, according to her mother, is more stable than she's been for the last 15 years of her tortured life.

The wild, dark eyes that glared out from the newspaper photos are no longer wild.

And now, despite her psychotic rampage through the Springfield Mall with a $107 department-store rifle in October 1985 -- a rampage that killed two men and a 2-year-old child and wounded seven others -- and despite her sentence of three life terms in a state that doesn't parole lifers, Sylvia Seegrist hopes someday to be released.

Seegrist, interviewed last week at Muncy State Prison for women, said daily doses of anti-psychotic medication had curtailed her delusions, paranoia and explosive anger.

In their place, she said, has come remorse.

"Every time Oct. 30 rolls around, I have a hard time that day. I have a hard time not crying. . . . The idea that I hurt people . . . it's hard to describe," said Seegrist.

Remorse, and the hope that her sentence might be commuted "before my parents get too old."

"It may be 30, maybe 40, maybe 50 years," said Seegrist, 30. "I will get out of here someday. I'm still hoping that if I go up for commutation . . . they'll realize that just wasn't me. I didn't even realize that I was so sick."

It is a view not shared by those who lost loved ones to her bullets.

"I don't want her out, because I'm afraid she just wouldn't take her medication again," said Grace Trout, 76, the widow of one of Seegrist's victims.

"She's a young person and she's got a long life ahead of her," Trout said, but "I'm just a little teeny-weeny bit bitter, if you know what I mean. I can't make another husband."

BESET BY PARANOIA

For the interview, Seegrist, a small woman who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, was dressed in hiking boots, brown prison pants and a deep-green pullover shirt. Seated at the head of a huge conference table in the main building of the prison in central Pennsylvania, she appeared younger than her age.

Her eyes, while still intense, even piercing, seemed to convey more warmth than threat, more interest than madness.

There was no guard present during the 75-minute interview, but prison spokeswoman Anne Forgacs remained.

According to psychiatrists who have examined her, Seegrist is beset by paranoia, schizophrenia and manic mood swings.

She takes an anti-psychotic medication, Haldol, along with lithium to control the mood swings. In prison, she said, "I've never missed a day of work and never missed a medication line either.

"I only have to see a psychiatrist 15 minutes one time a month, and that's all right with me because I don't have a psychological problem, I have a medical problem."

In the 10 years before the mall shootings, Seegrist was hospitalized 12 times for mental illness.

She said the first signs of her illness surfaced suddenly when she was 15. At the time, she said, she was told by a psychiatrist that she faced "medication or the hospital." That stunned her because she did not believe she was "crazy."

"How can you go crazy in six weeks?" she recalled asking herself. "Well, now I know, I have."

She said she had felt "homicidal off and on since 1980."

"I was angry at my parents for bringing me into the world," she said.

BREAKING POINT

At her trial, testimony produced a catalog of disturbing incidents from her past: Seegrist stabbing a guidance counselor, attacking her mother, throwing a lighted cigarette into a psychiatrist's face. And more: Seegrist burning a stuffed rabbit, sitting in the steam room of her spa in fatigues, spray-painting her apartment walls with phrases such as "kill 'em all" and "I hate you."

Seegrist said her rampage at the Springfield Mall was precipitated by a fear that her mother was about to have her committed to a mental hospital again, where she would be forced to take medication -- medication that affected her much differently from the drugs she takes today.

"My crime came about because I dreaded the medication so much," she said. Her medication, she said, caused her to lose muscle control, suffer eyesight problems and gain weight. Faced with the fear of commitment, she said she decided she would "rather die or go to prison than go to a mental hospital."

"It [the rampage] was somewhat premeditated, but that was the extra push over the edge," she said.

She was so mentally ill, she said, that no threat of punishment would have deterred her.

At the mall that afternoon, Seegrist charged a main entrance wearing Army fatigues. She squeezed off up to 20 rounds from a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle in a four-minute nightmare of random violence.

She was disarmed by a college student who thought she was a prankster firing blanks.

HIGH ASPIRATIONS

Now, she says, she wants to earn a degree in psychology. "I wouldn't be accepted in any other field because of my record," she said. "I want to work hard so that I can apply what I'm doing on a job."

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