A gunman entered a liquor store in Frederick yesterday, shot at police, locked himself in the store during a 30-minute standoff and ignited a fire that engulfed and gutted a two-story shopping plaza along one of the Western Maryland city's major commercial corridors, police said.
James Douglas, 29, of Frederick walked into Jim's Liquors at Antietam Village Center about 12:30 p.m., showed the owner a handgun and told him, "Get out," Frederick Police Lt. Thomas Chase said. Police said the store's owner, whose name they would not release, called Douglas a frequent customer and knew him by a nickname, "Menace."
Nobody else was in the store, Chase said, and the owner left to call police. When two officers pulled up, Douglas fired at least one shot at them through the store's glass door. Police then surrounded the shopping plaza and ordered nearby businesses to lock their doors and windows.
Alone in the store, Douglas called friends and relatives on his cellphone. Police crisis management officers reached him on the line, Chase said.
"While we were negotiating with him, he set the store on fire," Chase said.
Authorities had not located Douglas last night, and police said it is likely that he died in the fire. Nobody else was injured, Chase said. He added that a search of the liquor store will begin this morning.
Douglas apparently lit boxes of liquor to ignite the blaze, which spread quickly and destroyed all 14 stores in the center, Chase said. "It's completely gutted," he said.
The 1970s-era shopping center, in the 1500 block of Opossumtown Pike, is at the heart of Frederick's commercial corridor. Roads around the center were closed for nearly four hours, snarling holiday traffic.
Businesses destroyed in the blaze included a branch of Frederick County Bank, a Dunkin' Donuts, a Quiznos sandwich shop, a medical supply store, a hair salon and a dry cleaner. A restaurant on the bottom floor, Latino Grill, was going to open next week, but it was destroyed.
Police have not determined why Douglas targeted the liquor store but said there are no confirmed past grudges with the owner. Authorities characterized the incident as an attempted armed robbery.
"Anytime a guy walks into a liquor store with a gun, it would draw us to conclude that he's robbing the place," Chase said.
Douglas lived one block from the store in the three-story Country Hill Apartments, according to several neighbors who said they were his friends. They said when they heard sirens, they went out to watch.
Leslie Horner, 33, said she listened as a friend and Douglas talked to each other on their cellphones. The friend asked Douglas, " 'Do you have anyone in there with you? Do you have any hostages?' " said Horner, who said she has known Douglas for 10 years. She said she will never forget his answer: " 'No, it's just me and God in here now.' "
Another friend, Shantel Harris, said Douglas "said he wanted to come out, but he was so scared they'd shoot him."
While firefighters hosed down the ambers, a woman who identified herself as Douglas's sister ran through the police tape screaming and cursing at authorities.
"I lost a life!" she yelled, pointing at the charred shopping center. She would not give her name to reporters.
The fire let off billowing clouds of black smoke and a pungent odor from burning brick and metal across Frederick, witnesses said.
Bottles of alcohol accelerated the fire, Chase said.
"You could hear muffled popping sounds as the liquor bottles were burst from the flames," he said.
Bystanders said they could feel heat from the fire a block away.
Flames tore through the shopping center surprisingly fast, said George William, manager of a Roy Rogers restaurant across the street.
"I was in shock," he said. "It was dark. We have a fog all over the place. The roadway was just covered in smoke."
Eyewitness Jim Conway said: "The cannons of water were just pouring into the building. When I came here, the middle of the roof was still up, and now just look at it."
The flames melted the center's brown metal roof, which was left hanging in slivers.
It took nearly one hour for firefighters to control the blaze in the smoldering shopping center. As late as 5 p.m., small fires were still burning in one of the shops.
Staff members at La Petite Academy, a child-care center across the street from the plaza, who were supervising more than a dozen children, locked the center's doors for 3 1/2 hours after learning that a gunman was in the area. "As soon as we heard about the incidents going on, we immediately went on lockdown," employee Nicole Ohanian said. "It was just for the children's safety."
Employees in an accounting firm, also across the street and also under lockdown, said they watched the blaze from their office windows.
A man who would identify himself only as Kim said he has owned Antietam Village Dry Cleaners in the center for 12 years. He was evacuated and left his papers, car keys and coat in the store.
"Someone started shouting, 'Get out! Get out!' " Kim said, standing coatless in the frigid winter air.
Danielle Poe, on her way to her job as a medical assistant at Plastic Surgery One, pulled into the parking lot and found police officers with guns aimed at the liquor store. She was not allowed to get out of her car.
"There were cops with assault weapons," said Poe, 26.
One officer "told everyone to get back because they were in the line of fire," she said. "I saw some people run. . . . Two seconds later, there were flames inside the store. Within minutes, the whole top floor of the building was in flames."
Nancy Piper, 58, who has lived a block away for 30 years, was a longtime customer of Jim's Liquors.
"It had a great bunch of people working there," Piper said. "They would even carry your purchases out to the car for you. Everyone was on a first-name basis with them."