By Dan Eggen and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 6, 2007
A man dressed in camouflage killed eight people and himself at a crowded Omaha department store yesterday, writing in a suicide note found by his mother that he wanted to "go out in style," according to authorities and local news accounts.
Police and witnesses said the shooter, identified as Robert A. Hawkins, fired on shoppers from a third-floor balcony of the Von Maur department store at the Westroads Mall shortly before 2 p.m. Central time.
Hawkins, 19, was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound by police, who had sealed the mall after the shootings, officials said. Two local television stations reported that the suicide note was found at his home by his mother.
In addition to the nine dead, five others were seriously wounded in the shooting, authorities said.
The rampage was the second mass shooting at a U.S. mall this year. In February, five were killed and four others were wounded at Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City. The gunman in that case was shot and killed by police.
President Bush was in Omaha yesterday for a fundraiser, but left about an hour before the shooting.
"Having just visited with so many members of the community in Omaha today, the president is confident that they will pull together to comfort one another as they deal with this terrible tragedy," the White House said in a statement last night.
The sudden gunfire panicked hundreds of mall employees and holiday shoppers, many of whom ran screaming or took cover by barricading themselves into dressing rooms, according to witness accounts.
Some victims were shot at point-blank range, including some waiting in line for holiday presents to be wrapped on the store's third floor, witnesses said.
Mickey Vickory, who worked at Von Maur's third-floor service department, told the Associated Press that she and others fled to a back closet behind the wrapping room to hide, then emerged about a half-hour later when police shouted for them to come out with their hands up. As police took them to another part of the mall for safety, they saw the victims.
"We saw the bodies and we saw the blood," Vickory said.
Shopper Kevin Klein said: "I didn't know what to do, so I just ran with everybody else."
Sgt. Teresa Negron of the Omaha Police Department told reporters that authorities were alerted by an emergency call in which shots could be heard in the background, but the shooting was over when police arrived six minutes later.
Negron said Hawkins appeared to act alone. She gave no motive for the attack and said she did not know whether the gunman said anything during the rampage.
Omaha's KETV reported last night that Hawkins was from Bellevue, Neb., but had been living the Quail Creek neighborhood near Omaha. A man who described himself as a friend of Hawkins's told the station that Hawkins had moved from one low-wage job to another, was taking prescription medication for depression and was "doing other stuff he shouldn't have been doing."
At St. Leo Catholic Church, just down the street from the mall, staff members locked down the church and canceled evening classes.
The Rev. Harry Buse said he was driving to the church soon after the shootings and saw lines of police cars and ambulances headed toward the mall. He followed and offered to help but was told to stay away, he said.
"I saw police at every single door with rifles," he said. "They were checking people one by one, and letting them out."
Westroads Mall is in the heart of Omaha, at the intersection of its major expressway and interstate. With more than 135 stores and restaurants, plus a large arcade and miniature-golf course in the basement, it is one of the largest malls in the Omaha area.
Von Maur is an upscale, 22-store Midwest department store chain where shoppers are serenaded by live piano music and can have their purchases wrapped for free.
"We are deeply saddened by the horrific shooting at our Omaha store this afternoon," the company said in a statement issued from its headquarters in Davenport, Iowa. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this tragic event, as well as their families."