By Alex Tresniowski
Updated January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

It was bad enough that it was the day after Christmas and the weather had turned bitterly cold. But the employees of Edgewater Technology, an Internet consulting firm in Wakefield, Mass., had no idea of the horror that awaited them when they returned to work on Dec. 26. Just before 11 a.m., the sound of gunshots rang through the company’s offices in a converted knitting mill. “All of us thought it was construction going on upstairs,” says an employee who was in a meeting on the first floor. “We didn’t do anything at first.”

But it quickly became clear that something was terribly wrong. According to police, Michael McDermott, 42, an Edgewater software technician who had shown up for work around 9, suddenly appeared in the bullpen-style suite of offices bearing a semiautomatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a pistol. Then, say police, he methodically made his way through the company’s accounting offices and fatally shot seven coworkers, some of them at close range. “There was an enormous number of bullets and casings in the building,” Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley later said, “…an enormous amount of firepower.”

Wakefield police officers, alerted by employees inside the building, responded not long after the 10-minute shooting spree. They found the burly 6’2″ McDermott sitting quietly near two of his victims in the office’s lobby, still armed with three loaded weapons. He surrendered without a struggle, was taken into custody and scheduled to be charged with seven counts of murder.

Shocked employees and relatives who couldn’t reach their loved ones made their way to nearby St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, where they sought information, consoled one another and wondered aloud how such an atrocity could have been visited on Wakefield, a middle-class town of about 25,000 in the growing tech belt north of Boston. “A man came with his 2-month-old daughter, and I was there when he learned his wife was one of the victims,” says Father Michael Steele, pastor of St. Joseph’s, which was still decorated with hundreds of Christmas poinsettias. “You couldn’t help but cry.”

A Haverhill, Mass., resident and former Navy submarine electrician who went by the nickname Mucko, McDermott had been employed at Edgewater for a year and was regarded as quirky but hardly menacing. Yet one week before the rampage, said an Edgewater employee, he had an angry outburst in the accounting department. Authorities said McDermott, who had no permit for the weapons, was in debt to the IRS for back taxes and Edgewater was set to begin garnishing a portion of his wages after the holidays. According to police, six of the victims—Cheryl Troy, Louis Javeile, Craig Wood, Jennifer Bragg-Capobianco, Paul Marceau and Rose Manfredi—worked in the company’s accounting department. The other victim, Janice Hagerty, was Edgewater’s receptionist. “It appears that the shooter aimed at individuals as opposed to random spraying,” said Coakley.

Those who had met McDermott, who has a girlfriend but told a neighbor he was spending Christmas with his mother, seemed surprised he could be capable of such murderous violence. “His appearance was a little intimidating, but only on first contact,” says Christine Fitzpatrick, a resident of the three-story condominium complex in Weymouth where McDermott lived until October. “He was a big guy, but when he spoke he was very soft-spoken and shy.” Adds Christine Badger, 33, another former neighbor: “He pretty much just kept to himself. He was into computers and that’s all we knew. I didn’t even know his name.” Only Kevin Forzese, an employee at Macy’s who lives in the same Haverhill building where McDermott moved two months ago, says he noticed any change in his normally dour neighbor: “I’ve never seen him cheery, but he was acting cheery at Christmas.”

It was not, apparently, because he was filled with the spirit of the season, and no one will forget the mayhem that followed. “It looked like a movie set,” says Richard Elliot, 75, a retired actor who came on the scene just after the shooting. “When I heard the news I thought, ‘This must be a mistake.’ This was no movie, this was a tragedy. An American tragedy.”

Alex Tresniowski

Anne Driscoll in Wakefield, Tom Duffy in Haverhill, Eve Heyn, Bob Meadows, Joseph Tirella and Antoinette Coulton in New York City and Eric Francis in Vermont