Canonsburg shooter cited combat trauma in mental health evaluation
More than a week after authorities say Michael Cwiklinski gunned down his wife and two Canonsburg police officers before fatally shooting himself, investigators Friday still had not determined what spurred the former Army sharpshooter to deadly violence.
But a glimpse into the 47-year-old machine shop technician’s frame of mind can be found in a four-page mental health evaluation that was part of a plea deal between his lawyer and the Washington County District Attorney’s office in a domestic violence case involving his wife.
In the January evaluation, Mr. Cwiklinski, a self-described workaholic, disclosed that he had been in military combat and endured life-threatening experiences while in the Army.
But besides a determination that “military combat was Mr. Cwiklinski’s trauma” and mentions of “periodic anger problems” and a separation from his wife, Dalia Sabae, nothing in the report indicated that he might be teetering on the edge of murder. Instead it stated that he had enjoyed a stable childhood and did not suffer from any depression, anxiety attacks, psychiatric problems or hospitalizations. The only medication he took was for blood pressure.
“Suicidal ideas or intentions are denied,” Steven Adams, a licensed professional counselor, wrote in the report, which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went to court to obtain. “Homicidal ideas or intentions are denied.”
Both determinations proved off the mark. On Nov. 10, Canonsburg police officers Scott Bashioum and James Saieva responded to a duplex on Woodcrest Drive for a domestic violence call. Investigators said Mr. Cwiklinski — who earned a sharpshooter marksmanship badge in the Army — shot and killed Officer Bashioum, 52, and wounded Officer Saieva.
After a lengthy standoff, police found Mr. Cwiklinski dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound; they also found the body of Ms. Sabae, 28, and determined that he had killed her.
At the time of her death, Ms. Sabae had a restraining order against her husband of less than two years. David Bayard Wolf, the attorney who represented Mr. Cwiklinski in the domestic violence case, said the Canonsburg native met his future wife, a native of Egypt, online and later in person while traveling in Russia.
“Just as a disinterested observer, it was an odd coupling,” Mr. Wolf said this week. “She was a wonderful person. The whole situation is just very sad.”
Six months after their wedding — presided over by District Judge Jay Weller, who would later oversee the plea deal in the couple’s domestic violence case — Ms. Sabae filed for a protection-from-abuse order, alleging that he struck her in the face with a bag full of cans at a Wal-Mart when she asked if she could help him, didn’t allow her to have friends, and “used sex as a way to threaten me about my green card.”
Mr. Cwiklinski told his evaluator a different story, that he had “turned around with a bag in my hand, and I hit her, and she thought I was hitting her on purpose,” Mr. Adams said. “He was playing it as if it was a misunderstanding, and he seemed sincere. I didn’t know him well enough to know that he was sincere or not.”
Earlier this year, prosecutors agreed to withdraw a simple assault charge and allow Mr. Cwiklinski to plead guilty to summary harassment. He had to attend 16 anger management sessions, which he completed, and undergo a mental health evaluation.
Mr. Adams said he might have spent two sessions speaking with Mr. Cwiklinski before writing his report. He said he did nothing to verify any of the information Mr. Cwiklinski provided, assuming that if the court found any discrepancies he would be notified.
“He just called up one day and said he needed an evaluation,” Mr. Adams recalled, adding that he never anticipated that Mr. Cwiklinski would end up as a killer.
“I was surprised. I never would have seen that outcome coming,” Mr. Adams said. “I never would have expected the level of craziness.”
Mr. Cwiklinski told Mr. Adams that he was the youngest of three children and came from an intact family. The counselor noted, “Childhood was emotionally and economically supportive and maritally intact.” Mr. Cwiklinski described himself as a community college dropout and self-taught machinist who worked at the same place for 28 years.
Representatives for Tygard Machine & Manufacturing Co., where Mr. Cwiklinski was employed until recently, could not be reached for comment. His evaluation indicated that anger occasionally bubbled over, even in the workplace.
“Mr. Cwiklinski has exhibited periodic anger problems. His anger manifests itself in aggressive but non-violent ways. He uses harsh and angry words. Angry verbal outbursts have been reported,” Mr. Adams wrote. “Loss of control of Mr. Cwilinski’s anger is an occasional occurrence. His anger passes quickly, in minutes. Marital difficulties have been caused by his anger. His anger has interfered with his occupational functioning on one occasion.”
Mr. Adams’ report notes that Mr. Cwiklinski said he had been in combat, saw mutilated bodies and saw people “dying or being killed.” But there are no details about the combat experience.
Records show that Mr. Cwiklinski was in the Army and the Army Reserve from December 1986 to October 1994, including during the Persian Gulf War. He was a heavy-wheel vehicle mechanic who received decorations consistent with having served during a period of combat while Operation Desert Storm was underway. But the only information in the public record shows only a 17-month deployment to South Korea just before his discharge.
Mr. Cwiklinski joined the Army as specialist but left as a private, a lower grade. His evaluation indicates he received a general discharge, and information released by the Army related to his departure was redacted.
Ms. Sabae indicated in her applications for restraining orders that she did not think her husband had weapons, although as far back as 1994 court records show he carried a Sig Sauer 9 mm pistol. Other than saying that Officer Saieva was shot with a rifle, police have not disclosed what type of gun was used last week, to whom it belonged, how Mr. Cwiklinski got it or whether he had it at the time his wife sought protection.
Although cooperative, calm and friendly in person at his evaluation sessions, Mr. Cwilinski “had a way of explaining things away,” Mr. Adams said.
“He came to a couple of sessions,” Mr. Adams said, “and when I started to push a little bit, he stopped coming.”