Columbia mall murder-suicide struck the physical heart of community

In the days after a gunman killed two people and himself at The Mall in Columbia, the Nail Trix salon heard from many nervous customers canceling appointments.

Manicurist Van Le took several of those calls, struck 15 appointments off his calendar and listened as people explained their reluctance to return, at least for the moment. "They said they do not feel comfortable," said Le, who has worked there for eight years.


"They don't say when they'll come back, but they say they'll come."

There's no telling how long it will take for the mall to fully return to the role it has played in Columbia since it opened in August 1971, when it soon became the community gathering place that developer James Rouse envisioned for his new town.

The shooting occurred as Columbia is undergoing the largest redevelopment since it first welcomed residents in 1967. Apartments are going up next to the mall, a Whole Foods is due to open this summer and a Petit Louis restaurant is set to open Saturday across Little Patuxent Parkway. Nearby Symphony Woods also is scheduled for a remake — all part of a 30-year plan to make the Town Center more pedestrian-friendly, more urban than suburban.

The makeover is expected to bring thousands of new residents within walking distance of the mall, underscoring its role as a place where people not only shop but bring their children to play, where teens hang out after school and get their first part-time jobs, where holidays are celebrated.

For now, though, Columbia lies under a shadow.

The killings represent "a loss of innocence for Columbia," said Suzanne Waller, a 45-year resident who represents the Town Center on the board of the Columbia Association, the governing organization for the town of 100,000 people. "It's going to take some time for people to get comfortable with the mall."

Phil Nelson, president of the Columbia Association, said, "Initially, people will be more mindful of their surroundings in the wake of this tragedy," but he predicted that the mall would soon return to being a community gathering place.

A spokesman for General Growth Properties, which owns the mall, declined to comment on the financial impact, but several store employees said business has been slow — even for January, usually a light shopping month.

"People are still scared to come," said Nin Song, assistant manager of the Lucaya women's clothing store. She said she was awaiting the weekend to have a better gauge on shoppers. She said she has been reassured by an increase in uniformed security.

The mall is planning a moment of silence on Saturday at the same time shots were fired a week ago.

Tony Foreman, a Baltimore restaurateur and co-owner of Petit Louis, said he did not expect the shooting to affect the opening. Foreman, who was in the mall when the shooting occurred, said he thought the attack was a random act and would not deter people from coming.

Serita Weathersby, a customer who did keep her appointment at Nail Trix one evening this week, said that when she and her husband pulled into the parking lot, she was struck by how empty it was.

"Typically, we're waiting for the housewives to leave so we can get a parking space," said Weathersby, a real estate agent who works nearby and lives in Mount Airy. The mall, she said, "was like a ghost town."

Mark Millman, CEO and founder of the Millman Search Group of Owings Mills, who has been consulting for shopping centers for more than three decades, said crowds might not return until spring — when the retail sector generally sees an uptick. He noted that while some malls develop a reputation for crime, The Mall in Columbia has long had a reputation for safety.


"This is a very highly isolated incident," he said. "Over time, it won't be forgotten but it will fade away."

Millman mentioned a shooting at a mall in Portland, Ore., in 2012, in which a gunman killed two people and then himself. After six or eight weeks, he said, the mall increased advertising and emphasized security efforts.

"The crowds came back," he said. "The numbers were consistent with what they were prior to the incident."

Last Saturday's killings were not the first violent crimes committed at The Mall in Columbia. But they are the most serious by far, and the first to occur inside the well-appointed space, with its old-fashioned standing clock and fountain meant to evoke the comfort of a town square.

In January 2008, a 17-year-old boy was stabbed and seriously injured in the parking lot outside JC Penney in an apparent dispute over a drug deal. In 2007, a man was charged with attempted second-degree murder in a stabbing at a bus stop near the mall. In 2006, a man attempted to steal a car and held a woman at knifepoint in the parking lot.

The shooting Saturday occurred in the Zumiez skate shop on the second floor, when police say Darion Marcus Aguilar stepped out of a dressing room with a pump-action shotgun and fired at Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25, killing them both. Aguilar, 19, then walked out of the store and shot himself in the head.

So far, police know of no motive for the attack and have no evidence linking Aguilar, who lived in Silver Spring, to his victims.

That the killer appears to have chosen his targets at random makes the crime that much more disturbing, said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents the Town Center area.

"Random scares people, because you can't see it coming. You can't protect yourself from random," Sigaty said. "The incident has likely changed the way people think about our community. It's an awful reminder of the fact that violence knows no bounds."

That said, she expects that the mall will continue to thrive. "People are resilient," Sigaty said. "They don't want to live in fear."

She spoke over coffee Wednesday at Panera Bread as the place filled in late morning. Four Howard County police officers sat at a table by the window. By then there were few empty seats.

The restaurant is a regular stop for Sigaty, who often parks at the mall in the morning, walks with a friend for about an hour and circles back for coffee. Sigaty moved to Columbia in 1972, less than a year after the mall opened, and soon made it a regular part of her life.

She took her two daughters to the mall to play in inclement weather, saw them slip into the fountain — she still doesn't know whether it was an accident or a lark — and saw them as teenagers choose the mall as a favorite after-school haunt. One of her children got her first part-time job there.

Waller, who moved to Columbia in 1968, remembers life before the mall. You had to drive miles to shop, she said, and about the only nearby restaurants were a Jack in the Box and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"You have to know how grateful everybody was who lived here that the mall happened," said Waller, who lives about a mile away. "Because we were living in a desert."


The mall has become been a place for art shows, dance performances, gathering around the Christmas poinsettia tree at center court and for the Ball in the Mall, an event that celebrated the first, 10th, 20th and 40th birthdays of the mall.

"It's played the role in a sense of town center, what a plaza might be in a European country," said Padraic Kennedy, the first president of the Columbia Association board, serving from 1972 to 1998.

One evening this week, people gathered in the food court and strolled the corridors, but in smaller numbers than usual. Some paused outside Zumiez skate shop, now closed indefinitely, its facade covered with white board that has been turned into a makeshift memorial wall peppered with handwritten messages.

"Stop the Hate," one person wrote.

"In pain one finds their strength." "Our love and prayers will forever be with you guys." "Love is All/All is Love."

As Weathersby browsed at a women's clothing store next door, her husband, Henry Lesansky, looked at the messages and shook his head.

"You just think of the complete randomness of life," he said. "It could have been anybody at any time."

Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.