COLUMBIA, Md. — Shots rang out at a popular shopping mall in this suburban Maryland community Saturday morning, sending patrons running from stores and hiding under tables in the food court.
When police officers arrived, they found three people dead inside a skate shop on the upper level of the two-story mall. Two of the victims were a young man and woman who worked at the store. The body of another man, who is suspected of being the attacker, was found near the victims with a shotgun and ammunition nearby, said police officials, who believe the man committed suicide. Five other people had minor injuries - most of them suffered as they fled after hearing the gunshots - and were released from a local hospital Saturday evening after receiving treatment.
The shootings at The Mall in Columbia - located between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore - set off fears in the area as residents waited to hear from loved ones and concern across the country over thoughts of another mass killing.
But at a news conference held within two hours of the initial gunshots, the county police chief, William J. McMahon, said he believed the shootings were an isolated episode involving just the three people who were found dead.
“To our knowledge, all the activity took place at one time, in one store,” McMahon said.
He said that only one weapon was found at the scene - a shotgun - and that police officers had not fired any shots. The suspect, who had not been identified Saturday evening, had a large amount of ammunition on him, officials said. The two employees who were killed were identified Saturday evening as Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, Md., and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Ellicott City, Md. On her Facebook profile, Benlolo said that she was the first assistant manager at the store and had worked there since November 2012. She was from Cocoa Beach, Fla., and had attended Paul Mitchell hair school in Rockville, Md., according to her profile.
The Howard County 911 center received reports of shots fired at the mall around 11:15 a.m. The victims were found on the upper level at a store called Zumiez, which carries clothing and accessories for skateboarding and snowboarding.
At the news conference Saturday afternoon, the Howard County executive, Ken Ulman, said it had been a “tremendously trying few hours.”
He added, “We want to send our thoughts and prayers to the family members of the victims.”
McMahon said that uniformed patrol officers were the first to arrive on the scene and that they immediately went into the mall. They were joined a short time later by SWAT team members who began sweeping the mall, looking for other potential gunmen and helping shoppers who were hiding inside stores. The authorities had asked people to stay there until they were sure it was safe to leave.
The police said that they believed the suspect had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and had acted alone.
McMahon said his officers had not determined a motive for the attack.
The five people who were injured at the mall were taken to Howard County General Hospital. One person had a gunshot wound to the foot, and the four others were treated for a medical condition or minor injuries, like a twisted ankle. On Saturday evening, the hospital said that the five patients had been treated and released.
The owner of Zumiez released a statement Saturday evening saying that the company was “deeply saddened” by the violence at the store. The company said it planned to make counseling available to store employees in the area.
“The Zumiez team is a tight knit community and all of our hearts go out to Brianna and Tyler’s families,” Richard Brooks, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement.
On Saturday afternoon, the police responded to news media reports that the shootings were related to a domestic dispute, saying the authorities had not confirmed that. They said they had no information about whether the suspected gunman knew the victims.
“Motive of shooting is unknown. Not determined to be domestic or any other cause at this time. Any other reports are complete speculation,” the police department tweeted Saturday afternoon.
By 4 p.m., police had cleared the mall of all shoppers and employees as investigators examined the crime scene.
The mall had opened around 10 a.m. and was busy on the chilly day. It is, a huge complex with almost 200 stores, including anchor stores Macy’s and Sears and a movie theater.
Henry Callahan, 19, was sitting at a table in the food court when he heard “what sounded like a trash can being thrown over the balcony.” He heard someone shout that a man had a gun and more screaming from upstairs.
He hid under the table with a family that had a young child. He heard about nine shots fired, he said.
“I was legitimately frightened,” Callahan said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
“The panic on their faces was tremendous,” he said of the family he was hiding with.
Callahan said he and the family hopped over the counter at an Arby’s restaurant and escaped through a security door in the back hallway.
Law enforcement officials arrived in less than two minutes, McMahon said. Around 12:20 p.m., just more than an hour after it had begun, the Police Department tweeted that the episode appeared to be over and that no additional shots had been heard.
The department continued to post frequent updates to Twitter throughout the afternoon.
Outside the mall Saturday afternoon, there was a swarm of emergency vehicles. Helicopters hovered overhead, and heavily armed officers stood on watch.
McMahon noted that the police had staged an emergency drill at the mall in the past, which he said had helped them respond to the shooting.
The mall was built in 1971 in Columbia, Md., a planned community about 25 miles from Washington and about 15 miles from Baltimore. The town has about 97,000 residents spread over 10 separate villages.
Along with the nearby Ellicott City, it was named by Money magazine as one of the best places to live in America in 2010.
Debbie Sergi was working at the Wockenfuss Candies store at the mall when she heard about five or six shots ring out that “sounded like a transformer had blown up.”
“People started running, so we got our gates closed and got our customers hidden in the back room,” she said. “We were lucky to get our doors closed and locked. We all cried. We were all scared. Really scared.”
Weis Karzai, 22, of Silver Spring, Md., said he had been walking into the mall with his younger brother when people suddenly began streaming toward him.
“People were running out, saying, ‘Don’t go in there. There’s a guy with a gun,’” he said. “I grabbed my brother and just ran out and went back to the car.”
Just as he got into the car, he said, police and ambulances arrived on the scene.
The police said it was not clear when the mall would reopen, but officers would patrol outside the mall throughout the night and guard the crime scene.
A man carrying a shotgun opened fire at a busy shopping mall in suburban Baltimore on Saturday, killing two employees of a skate shop and then himself as panicked shoppers ran for cover, police said. Five others were injured.
Police were still trying to determine the identity and motive of the gunman who killed a man and a woman, both in their 20s, at a skate shop called Zumiez on the upper level of the Mall in Columbia, a suburb of both Baltimore and Washington.
Witnesses described hearing gunshots and screaming as panicked shoppers ducked into nearby stores and hid behind locked doors. Many found cover in stockrooms and barricaded themselves until the arrival of police, who searched store to store. By late afternoon, the mall had been cleared of shoppers and employees.
Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon said at a news conference that authorities had difficulty identifying the gunman because of concerns he might be carrying explosives and were proceeding with an “abundance of caution.”
“We do not know yet what caused the shooting incident,” he said. “We do not have a motive.”
Someone called 911 at around 11:15 a.m. to report a shooting at the mall. Police responded to the scene within 2 minutes and found three people dead — including the apparent gunman near a gun and ammunition — either inside or outside the shop, which sells skateboards, clothing and accessories. McMahon said police were confident there was a single gunman.
Police identified the victims as 21-year-old Brianna Benlolo of College Park, Md., and 25-year-old Tyler Johnson of Ellicott City, Md. Both worked at Zumiez.
Howard County General Hospital said it had treated and released five patients. One patient had a gunshot wound, while at least three other patients sustained other injuries.
The mall is at the center of the town and typically opens at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. It was busy with shoppers and employees when the shots rang out before noon.
Joan Harding of Elkridge, Md., was shopping with her husband, David, for a tiara for their granddaughter’s 18th birthday. She said she heard something heavy falling, followed by gunshots and people running.
“My husband said, ‘Get down!’ and the girl that worked in the store said, ‘Get in the back,’” Harding said. That is where they hid until police searched the mall and signaled it was safe to leave.
The mall was closed to the public as police looked in each store for people who might still be hiding, McMahon said. It will remain closed at least through the night.
McMahon said it wasn’t clear whether the gunman and victims knew each other. He said officers did not fire any shots when they arrived at the scene. Asked if the gunman shot himself, the chief answered: “That is certainly what it appears to be at this point.”
Tonya Broughton of Silver Spring, Md., was with a friend getting facials for a “girls’ morning out,” she said. “The only thing I heard was all the people running and screaming and saying ‘There’s a shooter! There’s a shooter!’” she said.
Wearing a gel face mask, she and her friend hid in a Victoria’s Secret store.
People were directed out of the mall and into a parking lot, where some boarded a bus and others walked toward their cars. Some people were seen crying. McMahon said detectives were interviewing witnesses as they emerged from the mall.
Laura McKindles of Columbia works at a kiosk in the mall. She said she heard between eight and 10 gunshots, followed by people running and screaming. She ran into the backroom of a perfume store and locked the door.
Allison Cohen, who works at the apparel store Lucky Brand Jeans, said she always felt safe at the mall.
“I truly never thought something like this would ever happen here,” Cohen said. “It’s really, really shocking.”
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.