WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) – A bitter custody battle that included an international kidnapping and prison sentences for a former optometrist and his mother ended in gunfire at a Delaware courthouse, with the doctor’s father killing his former daughter-in-law and another woman before fatally shooting himself, authorities said Tuesday.
Delaware State Police said Thomas Matusiewicz, 68, walked into the lobby of the New Castle County Courthouse on Monday, pulled out a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and shot Christine Belford, a 39-year-old mother, and her friend Laura Mulford, 47. He then exchanged fire with police, striking two officers who were protected by armored vests.
Authorities were working Tuesday to understand how the killings were planned, questioning former optometrist and convicted kidnapper David Matusiewicz (muh-TOO’-suh-wits) about his father and searching the older man’s home in Edcouch, Texas. The yard of the small single-story home was filled with a crime scene investigation truck and unmarked grey pickup trucks commonly driven by federal agents.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said Texas authorities were searching the premises on a request from Delaware law enforcement officials.
Belford and Mulford, both from Newark, were at the county courthouse on Monday to attend a child support arrears hearing for David Matusiewicz, Belford’s ex-husband.
Delaware State Police said David Matusiewicz and his father entered the courthouse lobby about 7:40 a.m. David Matusiewicz went through a security checkpoint while his father remained in the lobby. About a half-hour later, Belford and Mulford entered the lobby, and Thomas Matusiewicz approached and shot them, police said.
Thomas Matusiewicz then exchanged gunfire with police, taking a bullet in the upper body but dying from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, said Delaware state police spokesman Sgt. Paul Shavack.
The shooting was the culmination of years of strife between the Matusiewicz family and Belford, who battled David Matusiewicz for custody of their three daughters. In 2007, he kidnapped the girls and took them to Central America, court records show.
In a bankruptcy filing in Texas last year, Thomas Matusiewicz noted that he and his wife, Lenore, along with his son and daughter, Amy Gonzalez, were defendants in a Delaware Superior Court lawsuit filed by Belford.
Amy’s husband, Juan Gonzalez, said the acrimony had stressed out the family, but that they were shocked by Monday’s shooting. Juan Gonzalez said Lenore Matusiewicz told Amy Gonzalez she saw no signs that her husband was planning violence.
Gonzalez, of Edinburg, Texas, said he last saw Thomas Matusiewicz about a week ago as the family was preparing to drive east for Monday’s court hearing and to visit a family member in New Jersey.
“I guess Tom had other plans,” Gonzalez said. “We’re still trying to figure out why he did that.”
Gonzalez said his wife told FBI officials that her father had a brain tumor that went untreated for years, and that she wondered if it could have played a role in the shooting.
“He was changing _ forgetting things,” Gonzalez said.
At the heart of the lengthy custody and child support battles were the former couple’s daughters, ages 7, 9 and 10. In 2009. Two of them were pictured with their mother in the Wilmington newspaper after returning home from Central America. They were shown as blonde, smiling youngsters. One sat in Belford’s lap as her mother stroked her hair.
David Matusiewicz pleaded guilty in 2009 to federal fraud and kidnapping charges after fleeing to Nicaragua in a motor home with his mother and the three girls. Investigators said David Matusiewicz, who was released from prison last year, kidnapped the girls after forging his ex-wife’s name on a loan document.
According to court records, Matusiewicz took the girls to Central America after telling Belford they were going to Disney World for two weeks. The two were divorced and sharing custody at the time. Prosecutors say he forged his wife’s signature to obtain nearly $250,000 from a Delaware bank, then sent the money to his parents’ bank account and had his father transfer the money to a Bank of New Zealand account.
Thomas Matusiewicz was not charged in the scheme, but Lenore Matusiewicz pleaded guilty in state court to endangering the girls’ welfare and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
The attorney general’s office on Tuesday obtained a court order forbidding Lenore Matusiewicz, 67, from having any contact with her grandchildren.
Jason Miller, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office refused to say whether the girls were placed with another family member or were in state custody.
As investigators continued their probe into Monday’s shooting and workers repaired shattered glass at the courthouse, David Matusiewicz made an initial appearance in federal court on Tuesday on charges that he violated his probation on the fraud and kidnapping convictions.
Wearing an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back, Matusiewicz was escorted into court. A federal magistrate ordered that he remain in custody pending a probable cause hearing Friday on the government’s allegation.
Prosecutors say Matusiewicz sought permission on Jan. 8 to travel from Texas to Delaware, telling officials he would be staying with an uncle in Bayville, N.J., and that he failed to disclose that he spent Sunday night, the night before the shooting, at a home in Elkton, Md.
Telephone messages left at the New Jersey and Maryland addresses were not immediately returned.
Prosecutors also claim Matusiewicz is behind on child support payments of $2,200 a month and that he has yet to pay $9,674 in restitution and a $200 court assessment from his 2009 criminal case.
Lenore Matusiewicz attended Tuesday’s hearing with another family member, but they declined to comment about Monday’s shooting.
Ken Ryan from the Baltimore Field Division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the weapon used in Monday’s shooting, a Glock Model 21, was purchased lawfully last year from a gun dealer in New Jersey. Ryan said about three other weapons were recovered from Matusiewicz’s vehicle.
Sherman contributed from Edcouch, Texas. Associated Press writer Brett Zongker in Washington also contributed to this report.
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