LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - A 45-year-old township man perched in a second-story window Monday morning and fatally shot his older brother in front of the town house they shared, then killed a woman rushing to help him and turned the weapon on himself, police said.
Shortly before 10:15 a.m., Craig Mueller destroyed the peace on Westchester Drive in the Tall Timbers housing development by firing a semiautomatic weapon, police said.
The first shots killed Bryan Mueller, 52, Craig's brother. More shots followed, striking Kara Ellis, 21, who eyewitnesses said was trying to help Bryan Mueller.
"He (Bryan) was bringing out a TV on a hand truck. I guess he was moving out, and I heard ‘pop, pop, pop' and I saw him drop. We dropped on the floor and crawled to the bathroom," neighbor Laura Giberson said.
Valerie King was awakened by loud bangs, followed by gunfire, at her neighbors' town house.
King said she then saw Ellis run from the house in just sweatpants and a T-shirt, but then stop on the sidewalk in front.
"I didn't know why she didn't keep running. But then we found out that she stopped to help (Bryan Mueller)," she said. "That's when they started shooting at her. I saw her hair go flying, and then she fell down face first. ... She was moaning and calling out, and then it just got quiet."
Several hours after the shootings, King said she was still in shock from seeing "the nice young lady next door" getting shot.
"It all just happened so quickly," she said.
The first officers were on the scene within a minute of the shooting, police Chief Richard J. Buzby Jr. said. But it took officers until about 2 p.m. to get into Mueller's home.
"We didn't know what we were heading into, so we had to take all of the necessary precautions to keep our officers and the residents in that area safe," Buzby said.
Buzby said there were initial reports that the gunman might have fled the scene, which prompted police to essentially "lock down" the area bordered by Radio Road, Center Street and Oak Lane.
Little Egg Harbor Township School District was in partial lockdown as well.
Once inside the Muellers' home, authorities found Craig Mueller, dead of a single gunshot.
At a Monday afternoon news conference, Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford said investigators believe Craig Mueller shot his brother Bryan Mueller from the second floor window of the house they shared.
Ford said Bryan Mueller and Ellis both suffered multiple gunshot wounds and that Craig Mueller's fatal wound appeared to be self-inflicted.
Autopsies for all three are scheduled for today, she said.
All of the bullet casings were inside the house, Ford said, which makes investigators believe Mueller fired all the shots from inside the home.
Ford said Mueller used AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle, to kill his brother and Ellis, but that he had two other guns in his possession.
The shooting sent this quiet bayfront community into a state of frenzy. Many neighbors said Ellis was an outgoing, happy and friendly woman.
"She was so enthusiastic about her marriage. She told me she married the love of her life," said neighbor Barbara Tierney as she walked her bulldog, Bob, in the rain.
Ellis lived in Tall Timbers with her husband, Matthew.
"She said she found her soulmate. The love of her life at 21," said neighbor David Makowski, 36. "She was always very neighborly: ‘Hi, how you doing,'" Makowski said. "How do you explain to your 3-year-old that the lady who walks Diesel the dog isn't around any more?"
Police layoffs still set
The shooting occurred just one day before 11 out of 49 township police officers are set to be laid off, nearly a quarter of the force, news that made Makowski question the safety of his neighborhood.
"I'm very angry they're laying off police officers. When someone tried to break into my daughter's window, 10 cops were here in less than a minute," Makowski said.
Detective Sgt. Michael Hart, who also serves as one of the department's Police Benevolent Association's representatives, said eight of the 11 officers were on the scene of the shooting Monday.
"They were out here risking their lives, and they're not going to have jobs tomorrow," Hart said.
Mayor Ray Gormley called the shootings "a terrible tragedy."
"This isn't the kind of thing you would expect to happen in a small, tightly knit community like ours. But unfortunately in these times we're living in, this can happen anywhere - and they do," said Gormley, who praised the emergency responders for their prompt and organized response. "My thoughts and prayers go out to those families."
"We are still working, and will continue to work, to save as many of those jobs as possible," he said. "Even if it takes us all the way up until midnight (Wednesday morning)."
Buzby said the last homicide in the township was in April 2009, when a Waters Edge Drive resident shot and killed his neighbor. Police said the slaying could have been drug-related.
Buzby called the response of his department "vigorous" and said many of the officers who are facing layoffs came in on overtime to help deal with the shootings.
"They would've been here whether they were getting paid or not, that's the kind of people they are," he said. "They care about the safety of their fellow officers and this community."
Schools closed, residents displaced
As a precaution, Little Egg Harbor Township School District Superintendent Frank Kasyan said his district's schools went into partial lockdown called a "sheltering place initiative." All outside doors were locked and monitors were patrolling the hallways, but students were able to continue their day without heightened levels of anxiety.
"It helps that it's raining today, with all the gym classes staying indoors," Kasyan said.
Ford said investigators were still trying, as of Monday afternoon, to determine what prompted Craig Mueller to kill his brother.
"At this point it's still a mystery," Ford said. "It makes no sense."
But Ford said interviews with witnesses helped police determine that Ellis' death was random. Ford called her a "good Samaritan" who was just trying to help a neighbor.
Ellis' family packed items into a car in front of the victim's town house Monday night.
Dozens of residents of the Tall Timbers community will be displaced until the investigation is concluded, Ford said, which could take longer than normal due to inclement weather.
Displaced residents are asked to call Little Egg Harbor Township police at 609-296-3666 for assistance in finding temporary housing.
Staff Writer Dan Good contributed to this report.
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