UM student, friend slain in Arizona before gunman kills himself

February 20, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy and Will Skowronski | Sumathi Reddy and Will Skowronski,Sun reporters

If it weren't for the free Southwest Airlines ticket, Nicole Schiffman wouldn't have flown across the country to Arizona State University to celebrate her friend's 20th birthday.

But she had the ticket, her aunt, Audrey Pecarsky, said wistfully yesterday - taking the University of Maryland, College Park sophomore to a celebration with her childhood girlfriend that took a tragic turn when both were fatally shot by a man in a double-murder and suicide early Sunday in Tempe, Ariz.

"She was the kindest, sweetest, most good-natured soul that I ever knew," said Pecarsky, speaking from Schiffman's home in Merrick, N.Y. "She didn't even know this guy. He never met her. She never met him."

Schiffman, 19, and Carol Kestenbaum, 20, of Bellmore, N.Y., were returning to Kestenbaum's apartment complex in Tempe shortly after 4 a.m. when Joshua Mendel, 22, shot and killed both women and himself, said Sgt. Mike Horn of the Tempe Police Department.

Police believe Mendel confronted Kestenbaum because she had disapproved of his dating a friend of hers.

Kestenbaum was shot in the head and died at the scene, while Schiffman was shot in the back repeatedly while running away and died at a Phoenix hospital, said Horn.

Mendel was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Police said the crime appeared to be premeditated, noting that two semiautomatic guns and ammunition were found on or near Mendel.

Horn said Mendel - who did not have a criminal record - had called and talked to police earlier in the month, seeking information on alcohol rehabilitation facilities.

"We're doing the best we can to come up with some possible reasons why this would have occurred," said Horn. "But nobody will ever be able to make sense of this act."

Regarding Schiffman, Horn said, "We believe that she was just in the absolute worst possible position that she could have been in."

Kestenbaum and Schiffman were high school friends, both graduating from John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore.

A letters and science major at College Park, Schiffman was a social butterfly. She was the type of friend and niece who never forgot a birthday, said her aunt. "She would call me from college on my birthday," Pecarsky said. "How many kids call their aunt from college to wish them a happy birthday on their birthday?"

Schiffman was a member of Phi Sigma Sigma sorority. Her sorority sisters declined to be interviewed.

Scott Roth, a junior at College Park, met Schiffman at a precalculus class on his first day of classes. The two became friends, turning "a fairly boring math class" into an enjoyable time. "We started making tallies about how many times she would yawn," said Roth, 20. "She had a ton of friends. She was friendly with so many people."

Roth said he didn't believe the news when he heard it. "I thought it was ridiculous. ... She's not someone who would be in a conflict where guns would be drawn. She's such a calm person."

Robyn Geller was Schiffman's freshman-year roommate. The two chose to live together because their parents knew each other.

"It was a friendship formed because we were roommates, but we made sure that we would always see each other at home," said Geller, 19. "Her friends were so important to her. Having fun and being with her friends is what meant the most to her."

Sophomore Meredith Kaye said she lived on the floor below Schiffman last year, instantly becoming friends with her. The two had psychology class together this year. "I looked forward to going to psychology just to see her because I didn't see her as much as last year," said Kaye, 20. "We wouldn't even pay attention and would just sit and laugh."

Schiffman wanted to be a writer or journalist, her aunt said. "She loved to write," said Pecarsky, 61, of Cherry Hill, N.J.

Her funeral will be held tomorrow in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

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