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."
Trevor Piedmont, 17, who was reading a philosophy book inside Marbles: The Brain Store when the shooting occurred, said employees rushed customers into a back room.
There was a computer and phone in the room, and Piedmont said he logged onto Facebook to let everyone know he was safe. Waiting in the room was "kind of boring," but when he emerged and saw armed police officers, he said the reality of the incident began to sink in.
Nesreen El Sayad, who owns Sweet Treat, said she heard the shots and ran to a storage area to hide and wait for her husband to come get her. "I can't stay here. It is horrible. I just ran. I didn't see anything," said a visibly upset El Sayad.
Mohammed Zaidi, an 18-year-old employee of JC Penney, said customers ducked for cover after hearing gunshots. The store management then gathered people in the juniors department.
"Some people were crying and really scared," Zaidi said. "I was really surprised, especially here. You don't really see that here."
Hiding in the back of a first-floor card shop, Lena Kennedy texted her husband, Ian: "There's a shooter. We're in a back room. Don't come."
She had taken their 2-year-old daughter, Daphne, to the mall to buy a birthday present for another child. Ian Kennedy and their 4-year-old daughter, Penelope, had planned to meet up with them later.
"They were words that were divorced from meaning, like I couldn't comprehend them," said Ian Kennedy of his wife's message.
Later, Lena Kennedy told him that they had been in a card store on the first floor when people came in and said there was a shooter. Lena told him later that she grabbed Daphne from the stroller, abandoning it along with her purse, their coats and other belongings, and ran to hide.
Police eventually came in and told them it was OK to leave, and as they walked outside, a woman in a car, a stranger, picked them up and took them to a nearby restaurant. Eggspectatons. There, Lena called Ian, and he picked them up.
Lena "ran into the car ... crying a little," Ian Kennedy said. "I put on some music from the "Frozen" soundtrack for the girls."
With mass shootings becoming more commonplace in the United States, Kennedy, a Columbia resident, said he still felt such an event could never happen there.
"At least it wasn't worse," he said. "It's sad that these days we see, 'Oh, three people are dead,' and it could have been worse.'"
The stroller and his wife and daughter's other belongings were still in the mall Saturday afternoon, and they were unsure when they would be able to retrieve them.
Jade Patterson, the mother of 14-year-old Brian Alberca, was momentarily frantic when she heard about the shooting because she knew her son had walked from home to the mall early in the morning to buy shoes. He was at a friend's house instead, and the two eventually found one another. But Patterson said the mall on Saturday is a common hangout for teenagers.
"There is always kids here on Saturday. ... This is their hangout day," Patterson said. "You definitely wouldn't expect that to happen here, not at Columbia. This is Howard County."
Patterson said she moved to Columbia from Baltimore three years ago because she thought it was a safe place to raise her family.
"To me it was an escape from all the drama, a little paradise," she said.
Many customers inside the mall were directed toward the AMC Theater, away from the scene of the shooting. Some were loaded onto buses.
Heavy police presence remained at the mall into the night, with helicopters circling overhead and police officers searching car trunks in the parking lot.
Zumiez CEO Rick Brooks said in a statement that the company is making arrangements for counseling for their employees in the area.
"We are deeply saddened by the violence that has occurred this morning within our store in Maryland at The Mall in Columbia. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families," Brooks' statement said. "The Zumiez team is a tight knit community and all of our hearts go out to Brianna and Tyler's families."
Officials including Gov. Martin O'Malley and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, expressed their condolences and commended the first responders.
"While we do not yet have full details of what has happened, my thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, and those injured in the shooting," Cummings said in a prepared statement. "I commend the work of law enforcement officers and first responders currently on the scene for their quick and highly professional work in securing the mall and getting people to safety."
Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Eduardo A. Encina, Carrie Wells and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun