By OSKAR GARCIA
The Associated Press
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 2:31 AM
OMAHA, Neb. -- A man opened fire with a rifle at a busy department store Wednesday, killing eight people in an attack that made holiday shoppers run screaming through a mall and barricade themselves in dressing rooms.
The young shooter, who left a note predicting, "Now I'll be famous," wounded five others, two critically, then took his own life.
Witnesses said the gunman sprayed fired down on shoppers from a third-floor balcony of the Von Maur store using what police said was an SKS assault rifle they found at the scene.
"My knees rocked. I didn't know what to do, so I just ran with everybody else," said Kevin Kleine, 29, who was shopping with her 4-year-old daughter at the Westroads Mall, in a prosperous neighborhood on the city's west side. She said she hid in a dressing room with four other shoppers and an employee.
Police found the first victim on the second floor, then several more near a customer service station on the third floor.
The shooter, identified by police as 19-year-old Robert A. Hawkins, was found dead on the third floor with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren said the shooting appeared to be random. He would not release the victims' identities and gave no motive for the attack.
Hawkins was kicked out by his family about a year ago and moved in with a friend's family in a house in a middle-class neighborhood in Bellevue, a suburb wedged between Offutt Air Force Base and the Missouri River, said Debora Maruca-Kovac, who along with her husband took in Hawkins, a friend of her sons.
"When he first came in the house, he was introverted, a troubled young man who was like a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted," Maruca-Kovac told The Associated Press.
Maruca-Kovac said Hawkins was fired from his job at a McDonald's this week and had recently broken up with a girlfriend. She said he phoned her about 1 p.m. on Wednesday, telling her that he had left a note for her in his bedroom. She tried to get him to explain.
"He said, 'It's too late,'" and hung up, she told CNN.
She told the AP she called Hawkins' mother, went to the Maruca-Kovacs' house and retrieved the suicide note, in which Hawkins wrote that he was "sorry for everything," would not be a burden on his family anymore and, most ominously, "Now I'll be famous."
Maruca-Kovac said she took the note to authorities and went to her job as a nurse at the Nebraska Medical Center.
Hours later, Maruca-Kovac said, she saw victims being brought in.
Police received a 911 call from someone inside the mall, and shots could be heard in the background, Sgt. Teresa Negron said. By the time officers arrived six minutes later, the shooting was over, she said.
"We sent every available officer in the city of Omaha," Negron said.
The Omaha World-Herald reported that the gunman had a military-style haircut and a black backpack, and wore a camouflage vest.
"Everybody was scared, and we didn't know what was going on," said Belene Esaw-Kagbara, 31, a Von Maur employee. "We didn't know what to do. I was praying that God protect us."
Mickey Vickory, who worked at Von Maur's third-floor service department, said she heard shots at about 1:50 p.m.
She and her co-workers and customers went into a back closet behind the wrapping room to hide, then emerged about a half-hour later when police shouted 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," she said.
Keith Fidler, another Von Maur employee, said he heard a burst of five to six shots followed by 15 to 20 more rounds. Fidler said he huddled in the corner of the men's clothing department with about a dozen other employees until police yelled to get out of the store.
Witness Shawn Vidlak said the shots sounded like a nail gun. At first he thought it was noise from construction work at the mall.
"People started screaming about gunshots," Vidlak said. "I grabbed my wife and kids we got out of there as fast as we could."
Shortly after the shooting, which came three weeks before Christmas, a group of shoppers came out of the building with their hands raised. Some were still holding shopping bags.
Police told people to park their cars at businesses across from the mall and to wait for their loved ones, then directed them to an Omaha hotel to await information.
Nebraska Medical Center spokeswoman Andrea McMaster said it had three victims from the mall shooting, including a 61-year-old man in critical condition with a bullet wound to his chest.
Three victims were brought Creighton University Medical Center; two died and the other was critically wounded, spokeswoman Lisa Stites said.
By Wednesday evening, police were using a bomb robot to access a Jeep Cherokee left in the mall parking lot. Authorities believe the vehicle belonged to Hawkins. Officers had seen some wires under some clothing, but no bomb was found.
Authorities were searching both women's homes late Wednesday.
President Bush was in Omaha on Wednesday 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," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
The Von Maur store is part of a 22-store Midwestern chain. The sprawling, three-level mall has more than 135 stores and restaurants. It gets 14.5 million visitors every year, according to its Web site.
It was the second mass shooting at a mall this year. In February, nine people were shot, five of them fatally, at Trolley Square mall in Salt Lake City. The gunman, 18-year-old Sulejman Talovic, was shot and killed by police.
Associated Press writers Josh Funk, Timberly Ross and Eric Olson in Omaha and Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington contributed to this report.