NEEDHAM - A 78-year-old homeowner was beaten to death just after noon yesterday, allegedly by a contractor installing a lawn sprinkler system at the victim's house, leading to an hourslong manhunt that plunged this typically peaceful suburb into chaos.
Schools were locked down for up to two hours past the usual dismissal time. State Police and news media helicopters hovered overhead as troopers with dogs scoured marshes and woodlands for the attacker.
The manhunt became complicated when employees of a pizzeria in Needham Square reported that a jittery man who may be armed had entered the restaurant. That report led town and State Police to essentially shut down the town center and deploy SWAT teams to rooftops.
By 5 p.m., William B. Dunn, a 41-year-old Norwood resident, was captured in a marsh alongside Route 128 by a trooper with a dog. Police charged Dunn in the slaying of Robert J. Moore Sr. They said that Moore suffered extensive blows to the head with a bat-like object and that his daughter-in-law, Nancy, was injured when she apparently tried to intervene. Nancy Moore remained hospitalized last night, but is expected to recover, authorities said.
By early evening, after perhaps its wildest day ever, Needham was back to normal, officials stressed.
"There should be reason to feel safe in Needham, and there's no reason to be fearful right now," Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating told reporters gathered at the town police station.
A law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the investigation said Dunn was installing the sprinkler system in the basement when an argument broke out and he allegedly began to beat Robert Moore over the head. When Nancy Moore went downstairs to look for her father-in-law, Dunn began beating her, too, the source said.
Nancy Moore's son, Jamie, who was painting outside, went down into the cellar and found his mother lying bleeding on the floor, according to the source, who said the son brought her upstairs and screamed for neighbors to call 911.
The death was the town's first homicide in nearly 20 years, according to Police Chief Thomas J. Leary. "I haven't seen a day like this in 34 years with the Needham police," Leary said.
Dunn was being held at the Needham police station last night and was to be arraigned Monday in Dedham District Court.
Jamie Moore, 20, called 911 at 12:49 p.m. to report the attack, Keating said.
Last night, Nancy Moore was listed in fair condition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Keating credited State Police Trooper Stephen Barnes and his dog, Cirrus, with tracking down Dunn. Keating said police were aided, in part, by signals picked up from Dunn's cellphone. A co-worker of Dunn's who was at the scene was questioned but was not involved in the attack, Keating said.
The downtown standoff began during the hunt for Dunn, when police got a call from Stone Hearth Pizza reporting that a suspicious-acting man was in the restaurant and employees thought he had a gun.
Restaurant manager Marina Paranagua said that the man, who appeared to be in his mid-30s, ordered a small pizza and a soda, then kept walking to the windows and looking outside.
"He was just very anxious," Paranagua said. "He went into the bathroom and changed his clothes. And he was talking on the cellphone all the time, too."
Paranagua and a waitress, Gladys Potestas, asked the other customers in the restaurant, a woman and her young son, to leave quietly, and then called 911. When police arrived, the man dove under a table, and the employees fled out the back, Paranagua said.
Needham police and State Police troopers then surrounded the restaurant for about an hour, with automatic weapons and shotguns trained on the front door. Just before 4 p.m. - about the same time Dunn was being arrested 2 miles away - a man wearing a dark business suit walked out of the restaurant with his hands up and was handcuffed and led away.
Leary, the police chief, would not comment on whether a gun was found, would not identify the man at the eatery, or offer any other details.
Diana Conroy, a clerk at Joel's At Needham Square gift and candy shop, which was locked down on police orders for 90 minutes during the pizza shop standoff, said: "On TV, it's entertaining. This wasn't entertaining. I was so afraid I was going to see somebody shot."
A law enforcement source, describing the buzz of helicopters and a television crew that broadcast from the scene live for hours said, "There were more helicopters flying over Needham than Afghanistan."
Following protocol established in the Needham schools and other local schools after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, the schools were locked down.
Parents received prerecorded calls from the town warning them that a slaying had occurred, the schools were being locked down, and residents were being urged to lock doors and windows.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," said Liv Nash, who lives a few houses away from the Moores and has two children in Needham schools.
Deb Rayment, a mother of three children at the public Broadmeadow School and private St. Joseph Elementary School, said she was grateful for the official response. "The town and the state just handled it so efficiently. With someone on the loose, you want them in lockdown," Rayment said.
The last homicide in Needham was the August 1989 killing of Eugenia Haratsis by her boss, Dennis Beldotti, in the home office of his computer company. Beldotti was convicted of strangling Haratsis and mutilating and photographing her corpse.
The Rev. Philip E. McGaugh, pastor of St. Bartholomew's Church, where Moore was a longtime communicant, described him as "a wonderful man with a wonderful family. It's going to be tough for all of us. He was loved by his neighbors, loved by his family, and loved by his church."
James G. Healy, vice chairman of the Needham Board of Selectmen, who knew Moore through the church, said, "he and his family were outstanding, warm, and engaging people, and we consider this a tragic loss, not solely for their family, which obviously it is, but for the Needham community as a whole."
One of Dunn's neighbors, James Reilly, said Dunn was "extremely aloof" but also appeared to be devoted to his three children, all young boys. Reilly said he would often see Dunn playing football or catch with his children on the front lawn of their Gay Street home. "He was very quiet. I was shocked to find out it was him," Reilly said in a telephone interview. "It's very sad for his wife. . . . You just feel bad for her. This morning, he left the house and now he's in jail."
Peter J. Howe, John R. Ellement, Andrew Ryan, and Mike Bello of the Globe staff contributed to this report.