DEATH HAS A WAY OF POTTING A BACK-spin on things, so that what seemed to Keith Blum like a lighthearted moment a few weeks ago now looms chillingly real. Blum', co-owner of a hair salon in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, was telling a joke to a tenant from the neighboring Warner Plaza shopping center. "If you were locked in a room with Saddam, the Ayatollah Khomeini and a lawyer, and you had a gun with two bullets in it," Blum asked his acquaintance, 55-year-old mortgage broker Gian Luigi Ferri, "who would you shoot?" The Italian immigrant, who had heard the gag before, replied, "The lawyer—twice." Then he erupted in laughter so explosive he had to take off his glasses to wipe the tears from his eyes.

Three weeks later, on the sunny Thursday afternoon of July 1, Ferri was not joking as he rode up the elevator in a sleek 48-story glass-and-granite tower in San Francisco's financial district. When the portly figure wearing a dark business suit got off at the 34th-floor offices of the law firm of Pettit & Martin, he looked right at home—he was wheeling a black canvas satchel on the kind of dolly commonly used by attorneys to haul documents. But the bag hid a deadly cargo: two 9-mm Intratec TEC-9 pistols capable of firing more than 50 times before reloading, a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. (All had been legally purchased in Nevada this year.)

Down the hushed hallway to the right, Ferri walked slowly toward the glass-enclosed conference room. There, Jody Jones Sposato, 30, the mother of a 10-month-old girl, Megan, was giving a deposition in her sexual discrimination suit against a former employer. Representing her on a contingency basis was Jack Berman, 35, a well-liked labor specialist known around his firm of Bronson Bronson & McKinnon as "the lawyer with a conscience." Sposato was being questioned by Sharon Jones O'Roke, 35, an attorney serving along with lawyers from Pettit & Martin as the former employer's cocounsel. Court reporter Deanna Eaves, 33, was recording the proceedings when bullets began crashing through the glass.

As Eaves dived for cover under the table, she was hit in the right arm. O'Roke was wounded in the head, chest and arms. Berman and his client weren't so lucky. As Ferri continued to rake the room, they were both shot dead.

Near the conference room, legal secretary Elizabeth Newark heard screams and smelled gunpowder. She started to dial 911 but had only punched the first digit when the gunman appeared. "He looked at me, and his face was blank,'' says the 60ish former Londoner. "He wasn't interested in me. I gather he was interested in the lawyers."

As Newark stood frozen, her boss, partner Brian Berger, yelled at her to run. But Berger didn't take his own advice. He went into the office of colleague Allen J. Berk to warn him of the danger—just before Ferri opened fire on them. Berger, a 39-year-old litigator, remains in critical condition with chest and arm injuries. Partner Berk, 52, a distinguished labor specialist, died at his desk.

On the 35th floor, partner J. Ronald Pengilly, 59, had just started down the elegant interior staircase for a 3 p.m. appointment with a colleague when he ran into a stampede of people rushing from the floor below. He joined the group in running to the fire stairwell. "I went down about two steps, and the gunman came into the fire stairs at the 34th floor. I was about eight feet from him," Pengilly says. "He didn't look up, thank God, or I might not be here." Pengilly and those with him dashed for the elevators and made it to safety. Ferri continued down one floor and found other quarry.

From the moment they met as freshmen at Washington State's Gonzaga University, easygoing Hawaiian surfer John Scully and charming Oregon native Michelle Spiess were virtually inseparable. Nine years later, John, 28, an associate at Pettit & Martin, and Michelle, 27, a lawyer with a neighboring firm, were still rarely apart. That afternoon Michelle was visiting her husband, consulting some law books. When John heard there was a gunman in the building, he ran to get her.

Rounding a corner, the couple spoiled Ferri. He was fatally wounding intern David Sutcliffe, 30, a first-year law student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Ferri also saw them. He pursued the pair into an empty office where, Michelle said, John used his muscular 6'5" body to try to shield her from harm. As he lay dying, John instructed his wife, shot in the arm, on how to dial out for help.

Emergency vehicles were already converging on the high-rise, which is near the tourist-clogged Embarcadero waterfront. As SWAT teams began a sweep of the building, Ferri continued down the fire stairs to the 32nd floor. At the Trust Company of the West he killed secretary Shirley

Mooser, a 64-year-old widow, and investment manager Donald "Mike" Merrill, 48, of Oakland. He also mortally wounded legal secretary Deborah Fogel, 33, of San Rafael as she sat in colleague Paul Smith's office. Smith says Fogel's last words were concern about what would happen to her "roommate"—her pet miniature poodle, Ruby.

Next, Ferri's bullets hit Vicky Smith, a Trust Company marketing vice president, and Pettit & Martin attorney Charles Ross, both 41. But by then his two Intratec pistols had overheated and jammed. Heading down the fire stairs he found himself trapped between two converging groups of police. Ferri stuck the third gun under his chin and fired a final fatal shot. It was some 15 minutes since he had entered the building.

For several hours, as frantic relatives and friends who had heard news of the carnage gathered outside, SWAT teams continued to comb the office lower for other possible suspects. Around 10:30 p.m., Jody Sposato's husband, Stephen, 30, an engineer with Pacific Bell, found out the bad news. "They invited me to go to the coroner's office," he says, choking back tears. "And my life was shattered."

Authorities and acquaintances are still struggling to understand what triggered the random rampage, the eruption of decades of pent-up rage and paranoia. "When they told me it was Gian, I couldn't believe it," says Tai Salisbury, 23, Ferri's former assistant at his failing ADF Mortgage. "You don't expect that from someone you know, no matter how lonely and sad and miserable he is."

"It is astonishing," said Ferri's ex-wife, Donna Jean Benedetti, who was married to him for a reported eight years ending in 1977. "The man I married hated violence." During their time together, Ferri, a 1964 immigrant who earned a bachelor's degree in biology and psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz nine years later, worked as a paraprofessional Bay Area mental health counselor for Marin County's Department of Health and Human Services.

After the divorce, Ferri began volunteering for Rev. Terry Cole-Whit-taker, a former Mrs. California turned televangelist, who coined the slogan Prosperity, Your Divine Right. It became Ferri's gospel. But whether the project was real estate development or financial services, Ferri seemed to have had the Midas touch in reverse. The next decade and a half of his life is a litany of soured deals and financial decline. Bad luck appears to have played a part, but the would-be entrepreneur wasn't helped by failure to do his homework and an occasionally explosive temper.

"He didn't know what he was doing," says Salisbury, who claims her former boss didn't even know the procedure to verify deposits. Last fall Ferri consulted lawyers in Los Angeles, where he had been living for the past year, about declaring personal bankruptcy, but couldn't afford the firm's $2,500 fee. In June, Ferri failed to pay the rent of between $700 and $800 on the one-bedroom apartment in Woodland Hills where he lived by himself. He got a Pay or Quit notice giving him two weeks to settle the balance.

Some insight into Ferri's tormented inner world came in the rambling four-page letter police found on his body. In it he railed against "CRIMINALS, RAPISTS, RACKETEERES, LOBBYISTS," against the FDA for failing to regulate the food additive monosodium glutamate—which Ferri claimed had nearly killed him on three occasions—and most of all against anyone connected with a failed Midwestern trailer-park deal in the early '80s. Ferri blamed his adviser in that venture—the firm of Pettil & Martin—for alleged bad legal counsel. However, P & M chairman Ted Russell said a partner from the company flew to Indianapolis to help Ferri find the local law firm that won him a $1 million settlement from other parties in the soured transaction. None of those killed appears to have played any part in the deal.

But to someone with Ferri's view of the world, that didn't seem to matter. "There is this condescending attitude in business that when you get emotionally and mentally raped, well 'you got screwed' and the accepted results is that the victim is now supposed to go to work at 7-11 or become homeless and the rapist is admired and enveied as 'a winner,'': Ferri wrote. "I spent the last 13 years trying to find legal recourse and to get back on my feet, only to find a wall of silence and corruption from the legal community."

While police and the public mull over Ferri's possible motives, survivors like Stephen Sposato face a more daunting task—somehow-finding the grit to get on with their lives. It's particularly tough, he says, with a baby who keeps looking around for the mommy who will never come home. "My married life to Jody was nothing but excellent. Those were the best five years of my life," Sposato reminisces. "You can't even imagine..." he trails off sadly.

The day after the murders, sleepless at 3:30 a.m., Sposato wrote a letter to President Clinton asking for tougher laws on semiautomatic weapons. He plans to work with a group Pettit & Martin has formed to lobby on the same issue. "I just can't turn my back on this. Why wasn't this gun outlawed? How many times must this happen until someone stops it?" the grieving widower asks. "I'd like to be able to look Megan in the eye and say, 'Your mom died, but you should be proud to know it wasn't in vain.' "

PAM LAMBERT
ELIZABETH BRACK MULLEN and LAIRD HARRISON in San Francisco and LYNDON STAMBLER in Woodland Hills

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Brack Mullen,
  • Laird Harrison,
  • Lyndon Stambler.