By Tom Hals
WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) - A gunman stalking a woman in a long running custody dispute opened fire in a courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday and in the ensuing gun battle with police two women and the gunman were killed, authorities said.
The women were approaching metal detectors at New Castle County Courthouse as the building opened at 8 a.m. when the assailant fired his weapon, Delaware State Police Sergeant Paul Shavack said at a news conference.
After an exchange of gunfire with police stationed at the entranceway metal detector, the gunman and two women were dead, he said. Two male police officers, aged 42 and 50, also were hit but were saved by their bullet-proof vests.
Terrified court personnel were herded from their offices into the lobby by police who rushed to the scene and then searched the 12-floor building.
"The lobby is all shot up. The three bodies were there too," said Kenneth Lagowski, a court administrator in the building when shots rang out, in an email to concerned friends and family that was shared with Reuters.
"A SWAT team member holding a shield and pointing a rifle at me told me to show my hands and get everyone else in the office to do the same and follow him out. We were instructed to stand by the metal detectors amid all the debris, broken glass, etc.," he said.
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, said the gun violence was the result of a longstanding child custody dispute. The gunman was believed to have been targeting one of the women, Shavack said.
"Today's tragic attack was not a random act of violence," Biden said at a news conference.
"Thanks to the bravery of the Capitol Police officers who responded, and were wounded in the process, a greater tragedy was averted. Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of this crime and their families," Biden said.
The officers were treated and released from the hospital, said Police Chief William Joppe.
Authorities declined to release the identities of the gunman or the victims, and declined to confirm or deny media reports that the shooter was either the ex-husband or former father-in-law of one of the female victims.
Local media cited a years-long dramatic custody battle involving a local man, David Matusiewicz, in his 40s, who recently served prison time for kidnapping his three young daughters and hiding out for 18 months in Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico and Nicaragua. He and his mother were found living with the girls in a trailer in Nicaragua in 2009.
The girls' mother, Christine Belford, 39, who has remarried, had full custody, according to local media reports.
Shavack said the gunman was in his 50s or 60s but declined to comment on local media reports that initially pointed to Matusiewicz, a former optometrist, and later to his father, Thomas Matusiewicz.
Shavack would not say whether the gunman at the courthouse took his own life or was shot by police. Shavack declined to say whether it was the shooter's gun that killed the women.
The shooting took place amid a national debate over gun violence that has gained urgency after December's shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut.
Authorities were reviewing surveillance tape, 911 calls and interviewing witnesses to determine what happened.
In a statement, Delaware Governor Jack Markell, said: "Our thoughts and prayers right now are with the victims of this senseless violence and the Capitol Police officers who put their lives on the line to protect the courts and public every day."
(Reporting by Tom Hals, writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by G Crosse, Grant McCool, David Gregorio and Andrew Hay)