Webster NY Firefighter Ambush Victims File Suit

The firefighter-victims of a fatal Christmas Eve ambush in upstate New York in 2012 have filed suit against the estate of the alleged shooter, his accomplice who purchased the weapons for him, and the store from which the weapons were purchased.

The estates of slain West Webster firefighters Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka, along with wounded firefighters Ted Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter filed suit against the Estate of William Spengler, Dawn Nguyen, Gander Mountain Company, Inc. The suit was filed yesterday in the New York Supreme Court for Monroe County.

On December 24, 2012 Spengler set his home on fire and then ambushed the first arriving firefighters. Spengler, a career criminal and convicted murderer, used a Bushmaster AR-15 that was illegally purchased for him by Nguyen. She was subsequently convicted of lying on firearms purchase forms and sentenced to four years in prison.

From the complaint:

  • Spengler and Nguyen purchased the Assault Rifle on June 6, 2010 from Gander Mountain’s retail store in Rochester, New York, with Nguyen acting as an illegal straw purchaser. Upon information and belief, Spengler, then a 61-year-old convicted murderer, accompanied by the then 22-year-old Nguyen, entered the Gander Mountain retail store and, in plain view of a Gander Mountain salesperson, selected and purchased two guns, including the Assault Rifle.
  • In the presence of Spengler and the Gander Mountain salesperson, and with the aid and assistance of the Gander Mountain salesperson, Nguyen completed the firearms purchase paperwork by falsely and illegally identifying herself to be the actual buyer of the guns. Given the circumstances of the purchase, Gander Mountain knew or should have known, and should have taken steps to confirm, that Spengler and not Nguyen was the actual purchaser and intended end user of the guns, and that the sale to Nguyen, a straw purchaser, was illegal.
  • As a direct result of Gander Mountain’s unlawful and negligent conduct, aided by the illegal conduct of Nguyen, Spengler, a convicted murderer, acquired the Assault Rifle which he later used to kill or seriously injure four firefighters volunteering their services on Christmas Eve.

The complaint includes the following allegations:

  • Gander Mountain knew or should have known that Nguyen was not the real purchaser and intended end user of the firearms but, rather, that she was an illegal straw purchaser, who was purchasing firearms on Spengler’s behalf. A reasonable and law-abiding gun seller would have sought to determine whether Nguyen was the actual, intended purchaser of the firearms.
  • A reasonable and law-abiding gun seller would have screened and/or questioned Nguyen, including, but not limited to, asking why she was buying multiple guns at that time; why she was paying for the guns in cash; whether she was buying the guns for someone else; the intended use of the guns; and other inquiries.
  • A reasonable and law-abiding gun seller would have had doubts about the legality of this sale.
  • A reasonable and law-abiding gun seller would not have sold the guns if it had doubts about the legality of the sale.
  • A reasonable and law-abiding gun seller would not have sold the guns to Nguyen and Spengler.
  • Despite the strong indicators that Nguyen was not a legal purchaser, Gander Mountain sold the guns to Nguyen and Spengler, and aided and assisted Nguyen in completing the required firearms paperwork, without making any reasonable attempt to determine whether Nguyen was an illegal straw purchaser.
  • As Gander Mountain knew or should have known, it was reasonably foreseeable that the guns it sold to Nguyen and Spengler would be obtained by a dangerous or prohibited person (such as Spengler) for use in crimes, and that innocent persons (such as Messrs. Chiapperini, Kaczowka, Hofstetter and Scardino) would be shot and injured or killed.
  • Gander Mountain’s failure to exercise reasonable care in its sale of the Assault Rifle and the Mossberg Shotgun to Nguyen and Spengler was a substantial factor in bringing about the deaths of Mr. Chiapperini and Mr. Kaczowka, and the injuries to Mr. Hofstetter and Mr. Scardino.
  • Gander Mountain knew or should have known that the gun industry’s trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (“NSSF”), with the assistance of ATF, has issued a recommended sales protocol pursuant to which gun dealers should screen suspicious purchasers with a battery of questions, beyond those required by federal law, and not sell firearms to a person unless the dealer has no doubts about the legitimacy of the sale, even if the purchaser is not prohibited by federal or state law from buying guns.
  • Gander Mountain knew or should have known that this program, referred to as “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy,” recommends that retailers establish … basic procedures in an attempt to prevent illegal straw purchases…

The 28 page complaint included twelve counts:

  1. Negligence against Gander Mountain
  2. Negligent Entrustment against Gander Mountain
  3. Negligent Entrustment against Nguyen
  4. Assault and Battery against Spengler’s Estate
  5. Negligence per se against Gander Mountain and Nguyen
  6. Negligent Training and Supervision against Gander Mountain
  7. Public Nuisance against Gander Mountain
  8. Loss of Consortium against all 3 Defendants
  9. Wrongful Death of Michael Chiapperini against Gander Mountain, Spengler and Nguyen
  10. Wrongful Death of Tomasz Kaczowka against Gander Mountain, Spengler and Nguyen
  11. Survival Action of Michael Chiapperini against Gander Mountain, Spengler and Nguyen
  12. Survival Action of Tomasz Kaczowka against Gander Mountain, Spengler and Nguyen

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages against all three defendants, and seeks a court order “compelling Gander Mountain to reform its policies, procedures and training with regard to the sale of firearms, including taking steps necessary to prevent unlawful sales to straw purchasers and to otherwise prevent the unlawful entrustment of firearms to persons who are legally prohibited from purchasing or possessing them.”

Here is a copy of the complaint: Chiapperini v Gander Mountain

The politicizing of the case has already begun with word that the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence is promoting the suit. Several news articles about the suit reference the Brady Center numerous times but fail to even acknowledge the names of the slain and wounded firefighters.


About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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