Gunfire pierced the Saturday morning bustle at The Mall in Columbia, a gathering place for many in the planned suburban community, sending shoppers racing for cover as two store employees were fatally shot by a man who police said then killed himself.
Howard County police said the two employees at the skate shop Zumiez, Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Ellicott City, were killed shortly after 11 a.m.
Police, who did not release information on the identity of the shooter, said his body was found just outside the store with a shotgun and a large amount of ammunition.
Five people, including one who was shot in the foot, were treated at Howard County General Hospital and released. The other four persons were not being treated for gunshot wounds but for injuries related to a panicky stampede at the scene.
One witness said the gunman appeared to be between 18 and 21 years old and was wearing khaki pants and a white shirt, and turned when someone she was with yelled.
"He looked straight at me. ... He pointed the gun at me and looked at my eyes," said Shafon Robinson, who had run out from a bathroom near the first floor food court after she heard two gunshots coming from Zumiez on the second floor.
Robinson said her husband, Terrance Lilly, screamed at her to get down, and when she did, a shot sailed over her head and into the wall behind her. Two shots were fired in her direction, she said.
Her husband tried to jump over a table to grab their kids — the couple was at the mall with their three children as well as a girlfriend of Robinson and her two children — and herd them outside to safety.
"He saved the kids," she said, but broke three bones in his face as he tried to leap over the table.
A 27-year-old Laurel man who works at the mall but did not want to be identified beyond his initials, K.T., posted images online within minutes of the shooting that depicted buckshot damage on a wall. In an interview, the man said a woman pointed out the damage to him on the wall near the Great American Cookie store and said it came from the second floor.
Speaking at a late-afternoon news conference, Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon expressed sympathy for the victims' loved ones.
"Our hearts go out to the families of the people who lost their life today," McMahon said. "This shouldn't happen in Columbia mall, it shouldn't happen anywhere, but unfortunately that's where we are as a society."
A mall worker, Lauryn Stapleton, 18, said it sounded as though someone had dropped a brick from the upper level down to the food court.
"And then I heard [someone yell] 'Shots fired.' … It sounded like a popping noise, like something hitting metal really hard. It sounded like a brick sound. It just kept going and going and going," said Stapleton, who works at Cartoon Cuts, a children's barber shop, but whose boss had sent her to McDonald's for food.
"My instinct was to grab the kid next to me whose mother had a lot of stuff in her hands, and I ran into Sears," the Columbia resident said. "All I saw was three people fall to the ground. I didn't know what they looked like or anything. All I saw is that they fell. I thought they were the ones to get shot. When I got to Sears I alerted everybody what was going on and they shut down the store."
Police said the mall is now secure. "We are confident it was a single shooter," McMahon said.
McMahon said he could not confirm a motive for the shooting. He said police do not know yet whether the incident was the result of a dispute between people who knew each or a random act of violence.
After the shooting, SWAT teams swept through the mall to find people who had hidden themselves and escort them out, he said.
"We are working as quickly as possible to identify the victims," said McMahon, adding that he understands that relatives and friends of those who were at the mall are anxious to find out whether they are safe.
People inside the mall described the chaos that followed the shooting.
Nicole Kelley, 25, of Laurel, said she was eating in the food court with her three young children when she heard eight or nine "bangs." She didn't know what the noise was, but grabbed her kids and ran, leaving her coat behind. She said many others did too, and the food court was strewn with coats, strollers and food.
"I heard the shots and it was just a stampede. ...There were people running everywhere," said Antone Bishop, 19, who was shopping with his friend, Jared Malcolm,19, at the Finish Line, a shoe store. "People were running out the of store ... people didn't know what to do. People were crying. Everyone was just in a panic."
After the shots, Bishop said, he went to the back of the store, where about 20 people hid in a storage area for about 20 to 30 minutes until police came.
"At first I was in shock, and then I was calm and level-headed," Malcom said. "I was not overreacting because I did not see it."