Columbia mall reopens after deadly shooting

Zumiez skate shop where shooting took place remains closed until further notice

January 27, 2014|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Anxious employees had many questions as they gathered in movie theater seats for a security briefing on their first day back to work at The Mall in Columbia since a deadly weekend shooting: How can workers spot threats? Are there enough security cameras? How did the shooter conceal his weapon?

Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon reminded workers that the mall has for years been a secure and friendly gathering place for Columbia and the surrounding area, though he acknowledged that the shooting has left an indelible mark.

"Three people lost their lives in that mall," he said. "The mall will never be the same."

Much remains unanswered about the Saturday attack in which police say 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar shot and killed skate shop employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25. Police are trying to understand what motivated the attack and whether Aguilar knew the victims.

The security briefing for more than 300 employees underscored a larger challenge for county and mall officials, who also need to assure a community it's safe to return. While officials pledged increased security Monday and local politicians and Gov. Martin O'Malley made appearances at the mall — Columbia's social and economic center — some residents said they weren't ready to return.

Camila Lopez, 35, said she regularly sends her daughter to the mall on weekends. But for now, 15-year-old Genesis Smith will have to find someplace else to spend her Saturdays. Her mother suggested bowling, skating or the movies.

"My fear is copycatters," Lopez said.

The attack was especially jarring for the family, because Genesis liked to hang around Zumiez, the store where the victims worked. She said she didn't know them well.

Though the mall reopened Monday at 1 p.m., the Zumiez store remains boarded up. A black-lettered sign announces that it will be closed until further notice.

Officials said they have increased security staffing levels around the mall and would continue to review safety plans as they learn more about the attack, but they declined to give details.

While the mall's corridors were quieter than usual, officials said they were heartened by the crowd that gathered Monday.

"We know that a terrible, tragic incident occurred here, we'll always know what happened," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said as people trickled in. "On the other hand, look around. People are back. They're shopping; they're eating."

A simple memorial stands in front of a pool at the center of the mall, and customers will be asked to float flowers and leave written memories in a book. Another memorial has been erected outside the mall and is scheduled to be the site of a vigil Thursday.

Kristen Lowman, flowers in hand, was one of the first people through the doors when the mall opened Monday. Lowman, 20, said she was standing inside Macy's on Saturday with her father and 12-year-old brother when a frantic crowd of people stormed toward her shouting, "Somebody is shooting. Get out, get out."

At first, Lowman said, she didn't think she could return to the mall, a place she frequented for years growing up in nearby Elkridge. But something drew her back, she said as she headed to place a bouquet of flowers at a memorial. "I wanted to come in the first place because I was here," she said, adding that she also wanted to pay her respects.

"It's hard, I still have trouble believing what happened," she said. "I don't know if I can ever shop here again."

Others said the shooting wouldn't keep them away. Mariah Dixon, 26, of Towson stopped at the mall food court to grab a lunch of orange chicken. She said the mall was the most convenient place to eat after an appointment at Fort Meade.

"I'm not scared," she said. "I'm in the Army Reserve."

Mall patron Tri Hua, 30, said shoppers seemed to be buying necessities, not browsing. The mall seemed quiet, he said, with no laughter or conversation wafting up to the balcony where he stood.

"If you see the parking lot, it's pretty empty, " Hua added.

But some stores continued to be a draw. Outside the Apple store, a small crowd waited for the opening as employees huddled in the back. A cheer went up when the shoppers were allowed in.

The governor visited the mall Monday, a decision he said he hoped would symbolize how all the people of the state are standing behind Columbia.

"The tragedies that unfolded here over the weekend reminded us that in places all around our state, that all of us are human, therefore all of us are vulnerable, " O'Malley said. "But also there are a lot of good people in our state who understand the senselessness and tragedy of violence."

Ashley Venable, the mall's senior general manager, thanked the Police Department for its support.

"As a community we will heal together," she said.

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