Life returns to near-normal after Columbia mall shooting


The Zumiez store in The Mall in Columbia was re-opened yesterday. This morning, members of the press were able to photograph the exterior. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

This is where it happened, but you’d never know it.

During a drizzly weekday lunch hour at the Mall in Columbia, clusters of moms wheel strollers over the marble floors toward the food court. In the display window at Zumiez, a popular skate and surf shop, an employee kneels to cuff a mannequin’s jeans. Outside the store, a steady flow of shoppers ambles past without a second glance.

Zumiez reopened just a couple of weeks ago, nearly four months after two of its employees were gunned down by a disturbed young man who didn’t know them but believed they deserved to die. On Jan. 25, a Saturday morning, 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar stepped out of a dressing room and fatally shot Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25. Then Aguilar fired randomly at other mall shoppers before putting the gun in his mouth and ending his own life.

Aguilar had been obsessed with the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, police said later. He dressed like one of those killers, chose a similar weapon, and timed his attack to echo theirs, down to the minute.

There are maps to track mass shootings in the United States, an ever-growing array of markers dotted across the country. The September mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in the District, where 12 people died, is included on these maps. The nightmarish December 2012 massacre of 26 small children and their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a horror that launched a national debate over gun control but failed to result in stricter regulations, is also marked. So is the rampage that happened a week ago in Santa Barbara, Calif., where six college students were killed.

Violence erupted at a suburban mall in Columbia, Md. on Saturday morning, after a shooter emerged from among weekend shoppers. Police confirmed that three people were left dead, including one believed to be the shooter.

But the shooting at the Mall in Columbia in Howard County, Md., is not among those mapped, because there were “only” two victims. A mass killing requires four as the grim minimum to justify official designation.

After the shooting, the mall — the centerpiece of one of the country’s first planned communities — closed its doors for two days. The entrance to Zumiez was blocked by a makeshift white wall, soon covered with handwritten messages memorializing the dead and the responders who tried to save them. The store itself remained closed for months, time enough to show respect and to thoroughly redecorate the interior. When Zumiez reopened, there were two initials discreetly engraved into the floor at the entrance: T for Tyler, B for Brianna.

On this particular afternoon, a parade of soon-to-be-graduates from an alternative education program in Baltimore are posing for portraits, clad in blue caps and gowns, at the photo studio across the hall from Zumiez. One of the group, Marquise Starks, 18, has frequented the mall with his mother, grandmother and aunt — “power shoppers,” he calls them, with an affectionate eye roll.

When Starks arrived at the mall this time, he thought of his previous visits, not of the shooting that happened just across the atrium. As far as the shooting goes, “it could have been worse,” he says, adding that he lives in Baltimore.

“Once you get used to it . . .” he says, and trails off with a slight shrug, leaning against the second-floor banister. “I mean, there’s going to be more.”

More people, more places, more markers on maps. We don’t know the names yet, but we can predict the familiar images: family photographs of smiling victims, strangers hugging in parking lots, the vacant stare of a future killer posing with a weapon, mourners with tear-streaked cheeks at candlelight vigils.

The voices that break through our emotional quarantine are the ones that carry unfiltered truth and anguish, like the voice of Richard Martinez, whose son Chris was killed May 23 in Santa Barbara. Martinez stood up before the cameras and wept, cursed, demanded change — his words aimed at lawmakers and the NRA but also at the rest of us, the ones whose lives are still intact, who still have the luxury of choosing how much to care.

Two young women emerge from Zumiez, where they had chatted with a sales clerk and perused racks of folded pants and hats. One of the women, Janae Valle, 21, says she comes to the mall all the time — she was actually on the way here the morning of Jan. 25 but learned of the shooting before she arrived.

Valle returned to the mall a week later, unafraid: “What are the odds of it happening again?”

She says she doesn’t mean this to sound disrespectful. But when it comes to what happened, “you think about it, but it doesn’t change your experience.”

The mall feels the same as it did before, Valle says, and that’s okay, because you can’t live in fear.

The mall feels the same, Marquise Starks says, and that’s understandable because after a while, people get numbed to these things.

Actually, the mall is not quite the same. There are the solemn letters etched in black stone, unnoticed by a couple who leave Zumiez clasping shopping bags and each other’s hands.

Down the hall from the store, just inside the mall’s front doors, a Venetian carousel rimmed with white lights has paused between rides. A few families step off the platform and others climb on. A father lifts his iPhone to take a picture of his grinning kids, their small hands pressed to the white-painted necks of plastic horses.The music blares, the lights twirl, and the ride begins again.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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