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Somber reopening of mall in Columbia; memorials, tight security

WASHINGTON -- At an entrance to the Mall in Columbia, Md., a black banner read, "Forever in our hearts," and flowers were quickly accumulating when the shopping center reopened Monday afternoon, two days after a shooting left three people dead, including the gunman.

Amid heavy security, mall officials said they were eager to get operations back to normal.  Saturday morning, Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, opened fire at a skate shop, killing two employees and then himself, sending hundreds of panicked shoppers and workers running for cover.

“Repairing the physical nature of the mall is complete, and we are now here to repair the hearts of our retailers and our community," Ashley Venable, the mall’s senior general manager, told reporters Monday.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman planned to eat lunch at the mall in a show of support.

"We want to send a message that we’re getting our lives back,’’ he told Baltimore CBS radio. "We’re a strong, resilient community.’’

On Monday there were several noticeable differences at the site.  

One was the temporary wall put up around the skate shop Zumiez, paying tribute to the slain employees, Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy.

"Zumiez is closed until further notice," read the black text on the white wall, which had flowers deposited around its base. "In loving memory of Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson, please express your messages of hope and encouragement at the Mall's Center Court."

"The feeling here is so sad," one mallgoer remarked in an Instagram photo of the wall.

After the opening, people circled the memorial wall at Zumiez and an indoor fountain. Mourners left small flowers that floated in the water, where good-luck pennies glistened at the bottom.

The mall also offered memory books for written messages, to be given to the victims' families. 

Investigators have not yet found  a link between Aguilar and Benlolo and Johnson. Aguilar lived within a half-mile of Benlolo in College Park, about 20 miles south of the Mall. 

One of Aguilar's friends from high school, Kevin Ayala, told the Los Angeles Times that he was "pretty sure" Aguilar bought his skating clothes and gear from Zumiez "because it's one of the closest skate shops around."

Aguilar's mother had reported him missing Saturday and showed an officer her son's journal, Prince George's County police said. The officer tracked Aguilar's phone to the shopping center, where Aguilar had taken a 12-gauge shotgun. He fired six to eight shots before killing himself.

Five others were injured; one person was shot in the foot and four were hurt as they fled.

Dunkin' Donuts, which employed Aguilar at its College Park shop,  said in a statement:  "We are deeply saddened by the incident that occurred at the Columbia Mall. Our thoughts remain with the families of the victims during this difficult time." 

Benlolo had a 2-year-old son and, according to her Facebook page, was an assistant manager at the store and grew up in Florida and Colorado before moving to Maryland in 2010. Johnson's Facebook page indicated he had worked at the store since November. Both have family in Mount Airy.

On Sunday, Johnson's family issued a statement: "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 have been touched by this violence."

One of Benlolo's friends, Evelyn McDonald, told CNN that Benlolo “loved being a mother” and that the aftermath of the shooting had been “unreal” for those who knew her.

“We definitely are staying close, having people around, saying prayers, grieving in our own ways,” McDonald said.

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The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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