A child, a cause: the legacy of the Columbia Mall shootings

A child, a cause: What the victims of Columbia mall shooting left behind.

One year ago, all that 2-year-old Elijah Benlolo Summers knew was that his mommy didn't come home from work.

Brianna Benlolo — as her frantic family would learn on that shattering Saturday — had been shot and killed that morning along with her Zumiez skate shop co-worker Tyler Johnson by a disturbed teen who then turned the gun on himself.

Today, the families of Benlolo and Johnson look back on a year filled with loss, each birthday and holiday the first of a forever without them. But the families also carry a purpose: to take care of what was left behind.

"It's been hard," Benlolo's father, Aaron Benlolo, said of the past year. "But Elijah, he's been the focus of everything. He talks about her a lot. He knows what happened. And there's a lot of love around him."

To get some distance from the first anniversary of the Mall in Columbia shootings, which also rattled many in the model suburban community, Benlolo said his family took Elijah to Florida and may go to Disney World to honor the 21-year-old woman who "wasn't one to mope and would want us to do something fun."

If Brianna left behind a child on Jan. 25, 2014, her co-worker Tyler left behind a cause.

His family has spent the year focusing their grief to find a positive way to "carry on his name and spirit," said his father, Howard P. Johnson Jr.

"It's the worst nightmare a parent can have, especially the way Tyler went," said Johnson, 58. "One day he's saying goodbye, going to Zumiez, and we never saw him again.

"It's been tough, and the way I've decided to handle it is to try to prevent these incidents from happening in the future," said Johnson, who has started working on projects to address the issues of mental health and gun control.

Tyler Johnson, 25, was a recovering addict who had been active in the Serenity Center in Columbia, a gathering place for 12-step programs, Howard Johnson said. Like many who have addictions, he had an underlying mental health problem. But Tyler's problem was diagnosed — something that often doesn't happen because of gaps in the system, his father said.

In fact, someone who fell between those cracks was Darion Marcus Aguilar, the 19-year-old who would kill his son. Police would later reveal that Aguilar had been hearing voices, was researching his symptoms online and had been told by a doctor to see a mental health specialist — although he didn't follow up.

"They don't have access to psychiatrists, they're left on their own," Johnson said. "He was actively searching the Internet to diagnose what his condition was. That's how alone he was."

Aguilar's mother, with whom he lived in College Park, could not be reached to comment for this article. His grandmother, though, apologized and said she remains baffled by what he did.

"I am really sorry about what happened," she said when reached by phone in Colorado. She asked that her name not be used for fear of drawing unwanted attention.

"I love him so much. He was a very good kid. It hurt me so much. I just hate to talk about it," she said.

She said Aguilar would visit her in the summer, and she traveled to Maryland for his graduation from James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring. "He came out of a very good family," she said. "This is just out of the ordinary for our family."

The shootings have had a lasting impact on the quiet Howard County town. Columbia, built as a community of villages rather than a conventional suburb, was shaken by the attack on a mall that residents viewed as their town square.

"It makes you realize that no place is really safe if someone wants to hurt others," said Steven F. Gray, 51, who was shopping on Friday afternoon at the DTLR store in the mall.

Coincidentally, the Baltimore County teacher was in that same store last year when he heard the gunfire ring out.

For employees, there remains some unease. Although some said they had been told not to talk to reporters, one 28-year-old worker shared that he still does not feel "100 percent safe."

"It's actually in the back of my mind," said the employee, who started working at the mall about a month ago and asked to not be named to avoid reprisals from mall management. "No one, regardless of whether they work in a mall or not, should have to worry about whether they're going to get shot."

Outside Zumiez, two black floor tiles — one engraved "B" and the other "T" — memorialize the co-workers who were shot just over an hour after they had opened the store that Saturday. The mall had no plans for a formal commemorative event, but issued a statement saying that "not a day goes by that we don't think of Brianna, Tyler and their families."

Remembering Mommy

Those families largely have stayed out of the spotlight this past year, although they are grateful for the memorials held after the shooting and the tribute pages created on Facebook and other social media.

"It was great the community came together," said Aaron Benlolo, 42, a retired tech sergeant with the Air Force, speaking publicly for the first time about his daughter. "We do appreciate all the effort."

As Brianna was growing up, the family moved several times for his work, from Florida to Colorado and finally to Maryland. But she took it in stride.

"She was really very good at adjusting," Benlolo said. "She had a lot of homes, and where she was at the time, she considered it home."

The second-oldest and the only girl of five siblings ranging in age from 14 to 25, Brianna was creative and liked to work on makeup and hair — which included cutting her brothers' hair, Benlolo said. She hadn't intended to go into retail, but one day was shopping at Zumiez and ended up being asked to work there, he said.

"It was her personality. She was very easy to talk to," her father said. "She was made for that kind of job."

She rose to assistant manager, and was being considered for a job at a new store, Benlolo said.

That Saturday morning, as news emerged that there was a shooting at the mall and that it was at Zumiez, Benlolo said, "We knew what had happened. We knew her schedule, we talked to her every day."

The family started making calls — to Brianna, friends, hospitals even — to no avail. As they started driving to the mall, a police officer called, and their fears were confirmed.

Meanwhile, Brianna's son, Elijah, was at a grocery store with his paternal grandparents, Denise and Scott Summers, when they heard about the shooting. In the midst of the shock and sadness, a focus emerged: How would they tell Elijah?

They hurriedly researched the subject. "We found even with him being so young, we could flat out tell him Mommy had died and she's with the angels in heaven," said Christian Summers, Elijah's father and a student at Anne Arundel Community College.

"He understands that she's gone," said Summers, who turned 24 on Jan. 17, the day before Elijah turned 3. "He'll point to her picture and say, 'There's Mommy.'"

Summers sees Brianna in his son's face — his nose and a little bit in the eyes as well. Though the couple had split up about six months before her death, he said he harbored hope that they might reunite at some point.

They met at a concert on Magothy Beach in Anne Arundel County at the end of 2010, shortly after she moved to Maryland, he said. He was attracted to her bubbly personality, and they shared a love of music and the outdoors. Each grew close to the other's family, and the couple lived with his parents for a time.

When Brianna got pregnant, Denise Summers, 50, quit her job to help them out. She describes her grandson as happy and well-adjusted, something his teacher in preschool tells her as well.

Still, it's clear he feels the loss.

"Just the other day, he woke up from his nap, and he said he missed Mommy," Denise Summers said. "He didn't want to talk about it.

"But we've put together albums, things from Zumiez and the Columbia Mall. We will tell him how much people cared about her."

Elijah lives during the week with his father and his grandparents in Millersville. On weekends and other occasions, he is with Aaron and Melissa Benlolo, who live in Mount Airy. Both families speak warmly of the other and have embraced their shared mission.

"We can never replace Brianna, but Melissa and I try to be the best grandmothers we can be," Denise Summers said.

Continuing his cause

As with the Benlolos, the day of the shootings remains hauntingly clear for the Johnsons. They heard about the mayhem at the mall, and knew their son had just gone to work there that morning.

"I tried texting him, 'Is everything OK?'" and there was no response," said Howard Johnson, who also lives in Mount Airy and is an engineer for a defense contractor. "We started to get pretty worried at that point, and we got in the car and started driving to the mall."

Then they got their call from the Howard County Police, who had been delayed in reaching them because Tyler's driver's license still listed the Ellicott City address from which they had recently moved.

Tyler had been working at Zumiez for several months, Johnson said. His son previously studied culinary arts at Howard Community College, and worked at several restaurants before burning out on that kind of work. After being unemployed for a while, he was grateful to get the job at Zumiez, and proved to be a good salesman, Johnson said.

That their son would ultimately be killed not by his addiction but by someone with an untreated mental illness has only made Johnson more committed to working for change.

The Johnsons took over Tyler's position on the board of directors of the Serenity Center, where their son had received help for his addiction before mentoring others in their recovery.

A foundation in Tyler's name has raised about $25,000 for the center and a group created in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings to address mental health and gun control issues, Johnson said. He also is working with the Interactivity Foundation, which brings people together to discuss and devise solutions to societal problems.

Johnson said his son was full of "vim and vigor and impatience." The two enjoyed fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, although Tyler's short attention span sometimes meant he'd just as soon drive the boat really fast as sit and wait for a bite.

Tyler has a younger sister, Anna, whom the family took out of school for a semester after his death. She's now back on track at Salisbury University, he said.

"He was a great kid. He had his whole life ahead of him," Johnson said. "We always will miss him."

His family felt that absence acutely over the holidays.

"We couldn't get together this Christmas," said Maggie Sliker, Howard Johnson's older sister, who lives in Upper Marlboro.

"Everybody would come to my house. We would get together on Christmas Eve and then on Christmas Day everyone would go to their own house.

"But this year, it was just too much."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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