No answers in Columbia mall shooting motive

Police identified suspected gunman, but have not answered question of motive

January 26, 2014|By Scott Calvert, Justin George and Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County police on Sunday identified 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar of College Park as the man who entered a store at The Mall in Columbia and fatally shot two employees before apparently killing himself.

Officials said Aguilar was reported missing on the day of the shooting and that authorities had reviewed his journal, which depicted a "general unhappiness with his life."

But police said they still have not determined what fueled the lethal Saturday morning outburst that shattered the calm at the popular retail complex. County police Chief Bill McMahon called the mall "the cornerstone of our community."

In an effort to quickly restore a sense of normality, mall officials announced that the shopping center would reopen at 1 p.m. today. Zumiez skate shop, where the killings occurred, will remain closed indefinitely, however.

"We may never be quite back to 100 percent normal, but we are a resilient community," County Executive Ken Ulman told a bank of news cameras Sunday evening. He said he plans to eat lunch today at the food court, which erupted into pandemonium when the shotgun blasts rang out.

McMahon said investigators have not established any relationship between Aguilar and either of his victims, Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy. Community members and relatives remain at a loss to understand what could have motivated Aguilar to shoot the two victims.

On Sunday, Johnson's family issued a statement that said, "We have lost a kind, positive son who reached out to help others in need, and he made a difference. Our prayers are with him and the other victims and all the people who been touched by this violence."

At a 12-step meeting at the Serenity Center in Columbia, friends and acquaintances called Johnson an inspiration in their efforts to recover from substance abuse.

Friends described Benlolo as an upbeat and happy woman who doted on her toddler son, Elijah, and took pride in her role as assistant manager of the Zumiez store.

As police searched for answers, the timeline of Saturday morning's events came into clearer focus. Police say Aguilar, a 2013 high school graduate, took a cab to the mall, arriving at 10:15.

Police said surveillance video shows him entering the mall upstairs near the carousel. He spent an hour in the area of Zumiez on the second level and the food court one floor below.

He walked into Zumiez around 11:15 a.m. and fired six to eight bursts from a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun he bought last month in Montgomery County, according to police.

The day of the shooting, Aguilar was supposed to open the Dunkin Donuts store where he worked in College Park, family friend Ellis Cropper said in an interview. When Aguilar's mother stopped by and learned her son was a no-show, she called police.

A Dunkin Donuts spokeswoman confirmed that Aguilar had worked at its store in the 10200 block of Baltimore Ave. in College Park.

Prince George's County police said the department received a missing-person call about 1:40 p.m. and sent officers to meet Aguilar's mother at her home, a well-maintained white frame house. About 5 p.m., a police investigator visited his mother, who shared a journal that Aguilar kept.

"The portion of the journal that [the investigator] read made him concerned for the missing person's safety," a police statement said. The department did not identify the mother by name, and Cropper declined to give it to The Baltimore Sun.

Prince George's County police were able to track Aguilar's cellphone to Columbia, and the investigator "soon determined it was pinging at The Mall in Columbia." The investigator drove to the mall — which by then had been a crime scene for hours — and turned over the missing-person information to Howard County police just before 6 p.m.

"Not long thereafter, it was confirmed the missing person and the deceased gunman were one and the same," the statement said.

Efforts to reach Aguilar's mother were unsuccessful. No one answered the door at the home on Hollywood Road.

At the evening news briefing, McMahon confirmed the journal's existence and said Aguilar expressed "a general unhappiness with his life" in its pages. McMahon added that he did not have any additional information about the journal.

McMahon said police have seen nothing in Aguilar's background that hinted at violence. According to Maryland electronic court records, he had no criminal record. Aguilar lived near Benlolo, but McMahon said he had no indication the two knew each other.

Aguilar was quiet but outgoing, according to friends and former classmates at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring.

"I never ever heard him curse, raise his voice, none of that," said one classmate, Noah Sturdivant. Aguilar had a distinctive fashion sense that Sturdivant described as a mix of graphic art and skateboard culture.

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