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Florida veteran setenced to 17 years in prison for VA clinic shooting

By AUSTIN L. MILLER | The Ocala Star-Banner | Published: March 22, 2019

OCALA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — A 63-year-old man will spend 17 years in prison for offenses connected to the 2016 shooting inside The Villages' Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Florida.

At trial in December, Stephen Cometa was found guilty of forcibly assaulting, intimidating or interfering with a federal employee, forcibly resisting or opposing a federal employee and using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

At a sentencing hearing on Thursday, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore told Cometa that what he did was serious and the sentence should reflect that. The judge thanked Cometa for serving the country honorably while in the military and announced his decision. Cometa will serve a little more seven years behind bars for the first two charges followed by 10 years for the third charge.

Cometa, who declined a lawyer at sentencing, said he underwent 12 years of successful treatment at VA operations in New York. However, when he moved to Florida, he had to wait months for treatment from the VA. Cometa said "I just unraveled," and added: "Doctors terrify me now."

Cometa said he was sorry for what he did and the people he hurt, especially veterans. He said he needs treatment.

His ex-wife, Janet, said they had been married for nearly 20 years. She said her ex-husband has a mental disease. She said he got treatment in New York for PTSD and depression. In Florida, she said, the VA would not see him and she did not know why.

"The VA here did nothing," she said.

Federal prosecutor William Hamilton strongly disagreed with those assessments. He said VA personnel tried to help Cometa and "they did their best to treat him." He said Cometa endangered the lives of people.

Angela Wolfkill, who was at the facility on the day of the incident, told the court that a veteran who was there for treatment is now a shell of himself because of what happened.

Authorities said Cometa entered the clinic — at 8900 SE 165th Mulberry Lane, in the Marion County portion of The Villages — about 9 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2016. He had driven to the clinic in a green Chevrolet Astro van and carried an AM-15 rifle, which is capable of accepting large-capacity magazines, according to the criminal complaint.

He also had loaded ammunition into two magazines and taped them together "to facilitate faster reloading of the rifle." Each magazine contained approximately 26 rounds of ammunition, according to the complaint.

After he entered the clinic, Cometa walked up to a closed examination room door and banged on it. Inside the room were a doctor and two civilians. When the doctor opened the door, Cometa pointed the loaded rifle at him and said: "Now, you're going to listen to me!"

A struggle ensued when the doctor and one of the civilians attempted to disarm Cometa. During the struggle, Cometa fired the rifle, but no one was injured.

Two VA police officers arrived shortly afterward and also fought to disarm Cometa. That struggle caused the firearm to discharge again, according to the complaint.

The police officers were eventually able to wrestle the rifle away from Cometa and place him in custody.

Law enforcement officials later found a backpack Cometa had dropped in the examination room. It contained a loaded 9mm handgun, additional loaded magazines and a video camera, reports state.

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