Santa gunman kills nine and torches house

Eight-year-old girl survives shot to the face

The death toll from a Christmas Eve massacre, when a man dressed as Santa Claus walked into a Los Angeles house and opened fire with a handgun, rose to nine yesterday, as authorities began piecing together the crime.

Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, a 45-year-old divorcee, is believed to have carried out the spree after falling out with his former wife, whose parents had invited 30 guests to celebrate Christmas at their home in the prosperous suburb of Covina.

Witnesses say that Pardo knocked on the door at around 11.30pm. When an eight-year-old girl opened it, presuming he was a hired entertainer, Pardo shot her in the face with a semi-automatic pistol. She survived. He walked into the living room and began firing indiscriminately. Having run out of ammunition, he doused the property in flammable liquid and set it ablaze, before fleeing in a rental car to his brother’s house. There, he later killed himself.

Nine charred bodies were found in the ashes of the burnt-out building yesterday, including remains thought to belong to his former wife Sylvia, and her elderly parents, Joseph and Alicia Ortega. Most could only be formally identified from dental records.

The massacre appears to have been planned. Pardo was carrying two handguns, which were hidden under his outfit and later left at the scene, together with a 2½ft metal container that had been carefully wrapped with a bow.

When Pardo began shooting, partygoers fled in panic. Some ran into the garden, while others smashed through glass, leaping from first-floor windows. Amid the chaos, Pardo doused the building in an as-yet-unidentified liquid from the metal container, which was made from two pressurised fuel tanks, and set it alight. He then calmly stepped outside, changed out of his Santa costume, jumped in a hire car and drove to his brother’s house 40 miles away in Sylmar, where he killed himself with two shots to the head.

The death toll made it the worst single homicide in the US this year. The girl who answered the door was being kept in hospital last night, along with a 20-year-old woman who broke her ankle leaping from a window. A 16 year-old girl shot in the back also survived.

Police said Pardo had separated from his wife earlier this year, after less than a year of marriage. They had filed for divorce in March and reached a settlement on 18 December.

Although Pardo was a regular churchgoer, described as a model citizen, his behaviour towards his former wife had apparently become increasingly erratic. Sylvia had taken out a restraining order in September. He had tried, unsuccessfully, to seek alimony from Sylvia, claiming that their acrimonious divorce had left him unable to work or function normally, ever since the day this spring when she and her three children had moved out of their home.

The attack was apparently planned to coincide with a large family gathering that the Ortegas, who were retired from their paint-spraying business, held every Christmas Eve for extended family and friends, and which Pardo had attended on several occasions.

Police said they were baffled by some of the devices he had used to carry out the assault. They said they were still trying to work out how his fuel tank device had been made, and what highly flammable liquid it dispensed.