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No answers in Columbia mall shooting motive

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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.

Blake High will have counselors on hand to speak to students today, Principal Christopher S. Berry wrote in a statement posted on the school's website. "It is a sad time of reflection for our wider community," he wrote.

Cropper said his mother never saw a gun or ammunition in the family's College Park home. She was not aware that in December he had gone to Montgomery County to buy the shotgun that police said he used Saturday.

"His mother right now is struggling for a reason to live," Cropper said. "It's become an epidemic right now. Every week we're reading about someone shooting in a mall. … What out there in our world is angering these children that makes them do something like this?"

McMahon said he believed Aguilar purchased the shotgun legally.

Along with the gun, he was found with a large amount of ammunition and a bag containing two crude devices made of "flash powder and household items." Police rendered the devices harmless, McMahon said, and no other booby traps or explosives were found in the mall after 20 canine teams searched the complex.

Five people were treated at an area hospital and released Saturday. A woman was shot in the foot, and four others were hurt during the chaos after the shooting. On Sunday, McMahon clarified that the woman was shot on the mall's second level, where Zumiez is, not on the first level, as first reported.

Benlolo grew up in Florida and Colorado before moving to Maryland in 2010, according to her Facebook page. Johnson's Facebook page said he began working at Zumiez, which sells skateboard apparel and gear, in November. Both have family in Mount Airy.

At Sunday evening's news briefing, Ulman praised emergency responders and said the "outpouring of compassion" in the wider community was "really heartening."

But standing beside him, his police chief predicted that Saturday's shooting would leave a lasting mark.

"Nothing is going to go back to normal," McMahon said. "This mall is going to be different because of what happened."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Yvonne Wenger, Erica L. Green, Colin Campbell and Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.

Memorials Monday

Two memorial areas will be held when the mall opens at 1 p.m. Monday. One will be in front of the entrance near Sears; the other will take place in the mall's center court.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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