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Police search for clues, motive in Maryland shooting that left 3 dead

Officials said the alleged gunman shot co-workers at Columbia Machine near Smithsburg

Washington County Sheriff's deputies investigate following a shooting at Columbia Machine in Smithsburg, Md. (Colleen McGrath/Herald-Mail/AP)

SMITHSBURG, Md. — Brandon Pryor and his girlfriend, Harleigh Routzahn, had just arrived home Thursday south of this town in the western part of the state, when they heard police sirens screaming by and then a crash as a vehicle smashed into a police cruiser.

“I came out the front door and there were five or six police SUVs blocking off each part of the intersection,” said Pryor, 29. “Then the shots just started going off.”

Pryor counted roughly 15 gunshots, including some that passed so closely to where he and Routzahn were, he said he could hear them ricocheting off the road. For a moment, he stood frozen, thinking how the sound was just like that of bullets in a Hollywood movie.

Pryor and Routzahn were witnessing the climax of the latest mass shooting in the United States. A Maryland State Police trooper was exchanging gunfire with a suspect, who authorities say had shot and killed three co-workers and injured a fourth at a nearby factory, before fleeing.

The trooper shot the suspect and he was taken into custody.

Friday night, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office identified the suspect as Joe Louis Esquivel, 23, of Hedgesville, W.Va. The sheriff’s office said he was charged with three counts of first degree murder and with other offenses.

Efforts to reach relatives Friday night were not immediately successful.

On Friday, investigators were still trying to piece together what happened and determine a motive in the shooting at the Columbia Machine plant that shook this rural community. The suspect remained hospitalized.

Neighbors of Pryor and Routzahn, including some with children who were playing outside, were left to talk late into the night Thursday, struggling to make sense of how the violence that had engulfed Buffalo and Uvalde in recent weeks was now unfolding on their quiet stretch of road.

“You expect this stuff happening in the city, like D.C. or Baltimore, but you don’t expect it in a town like this,” Pryor said.

The deceased were identified as Mark Allan Frey, 50; Charles Edward Minnick Jr., 31; and Joshua Robert Wallace, 30. Authorities released the name of the fourth man who was injured, but The Washington Post generally does not name living victims of crime without their consent.

The sheriff’s office said in a release Friday that the suspect arrived for his normal work shift at Columbia Machine on Thursday and worked throughout the day. Around 2:30 p.m., the suspect exited the factory, retrieved a weapon from his vehicle and reentered the facility.

The suspect then went to a break room and began firing on employees, the sheriff’s office said. Smithsburg police later arrived on the scene and found the injured victim outside the factory and three dead inside.

The gunman left the scene in his Mitsubishi Eclipse, which Maryland State troopers encountered about 10 miles away near Pryor and Routzahn’s home.

Three dead after man shoots co-workers in Smithsburg, Md., police say

Routzahn captured what happened next in videos posted to Facebook. Police cruisers race down her road and come to a stop. Routzahn asks on the video if someone is running from the police. Suddenly, the sound of gunfire erupted.

Routzahn shouted, “Shots fired! Shots fired!”

As Routzahn screamed, Pryor tried to pull his girlfriend back to safety, telling her, “Get back, babe.”

Police can be heard yelling on a second video, “Don’t move! Get your hands up!”

In the exchange of gunfire with the suspect, a trooper was shot in the shoulder, according to the sheriff’s office. The trooper was treated and released from the hospital Thursday.

Investigators interviewed Pryor and Routzahn for eyewitness statements. Pryor watched as officials towed away a state trooper’s car as well as the suspect’s orange car — its windshield still riddled with bullet holes.

Troopers later found a handgun in the suspect’s vehicle, authorities said. Police also said the weapon used at the factory and in shooting the trooper was a semiautomatic handgun, but did not release the make and model.

Columbia Machine’s website says it designs and manufactures concrete products equipment including mixers and molds, and it serves customers in more than 100 countries. In 2019, Columbia Machine bought the Smithsburg facility, which had been a family-run business called Bikle Manufacturing that started in 1971.

Rick Goode, Columbia Machine’s CEO, said in a statement that he and others at the company are “deeply saddened” about the shooting. A company representative declined to say how many employees worked in the Smithsburg facility or answer other questions.

“We are working closely with local authorities while the investigation continues,” Goode said. “Our highest priority during this tragic event is the safety and well-being of our employees and their families.”

The only sign of the violence that had taken place inside the factory Friday was a small bouquet of yellow flowers propped against the chain-link fence. It had been left near the entrance that morning by a man who said he didn’t know the victims but grew up in Smithsburg and felt the need to do something — anything — to show that they mattered and that people cared.

Joanie Gerber, whose grandfather started Bikle Manufacturing and then sold the business to Columbia Machine, said Friday that she was “deeply saddened by what has happened.” She heard of the tragedy when her husband called her while she was at the grocery store.

“He said, ‘There was an incident at the building,’ ” Gerber recalled. “I was upset and sickened.”

Gerber said one of the victims — Frey — had worked for her grandfather and for her, having been a machinist there for 25 years, and that she’d gone to the local high school with him.

“Mark was a very good employee,” she said. “He was a steady employee. You could count on him.”

She added: “He sticks to something. If he said he was going to be there, he was.”

Gerber said she had run into Frey just a few weeks ago, and he told her he was expecting his first grandchild.

Frey grew up on a farm just three miles down the road from the factory where he was shot and killed, neighbors and relatives said.

“He grew up a country boy,” said Bill Fager, 77, who has lived in the house next door to the Frey family since 1973.

Fager’s daughter rode the school bus with Mark through middle and high school.

“He did all the regular country things, farming, hunting, fishing,” Fager said.

Frey’s father worked as a farm foreman, and Frey spent his teenage years working at a nearby dairy farm and creamery owned by his aunt and uncle.

“He was a good kid, happy go-lucky,” said his cousin David Herbst, 67, who grew up with Mark and now runs the family creamery. “He helped us throwing the hay, driving the tractors.”

Herbst lost touch with Frey after Frey moved in recent years to Waynesboro, Pa., to live with his significant other there.

Efforts to reach family and friends for Minnick were unsuccessful Thursday night and Friday. A woman who identified herself as Wallace’s mother said she was too upset to speak. “I just can’t right now,” she said, her voice choked with sobs.

The shooting happened just outside Smithsburg in a rural area dotted with farmland, rock quarries, cow pastures and sporadic homes.

Neighbors say there is often loud banging coming from the manufacturing facility — the sound of drilling and metal grinding on metal — which is why many didn’t even know a shooting had occurred until police arrived.

“We didn’t hear gunshots or anything out of the ordinary,” said Kim Gravely, who lives three houses down from the plant. She said she didn’t know there was a shooting until her sons saw police cars swarming the two-lane street they share with the facility.

Aaron Mace, owner of the auto body shop that has operated directly across the street from the facility for 34 years, said his family bought their shop’s property from the Bikle family years ago, quietly sharing the corner of Bikle Road with them until the plant was sold.

“I grew up here. Things like this just don’t happen here in Smithsburg,” Mace said. “It’s a small town. Everyone knows each other and sticks together.”

Family members of Wallace’s girlfriend said Friday she was in bed grief-stricken and could not talk about what happened, but confirmed she had posted a GoFundMe campaign for him that featured a photo of the couple smiling arm-in-arm.

A message posted with the fundraiser is written in Wallace’s voice and says: “Now my girl & Family are having to pick up all the pieces. This is not how this was supposed to end.”

Lauren Lumpkin, Meagan Flynn, Erin Cox, Alice Crites, Peter Hermann, Jasmine Hilton, Monika Mathur, Dan Morse, Ian Shapira and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this story said authorities had not identified the surviving victim. Police did release his name, but The Post generally does not identify surviving victims of crime without their consent.

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