HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Randy Winters couldn’t convince his wife to come to this year’s Fourth of July parade — she was too upset about the Supreme Court abortion decision for her to “celebrate America,” she told him. But he went anyway, snagging a spot near the commuter rail tracks that cut through town.
As he watched the Highland Park High School marching band file by, playing a patriotic tune, Winters, 56, told a friend: “This is what it’s all about. America isn’t so bad after all.”
“And then I heard boom-boom-boom-boom-boom,” Winters said. “People were just screaming ‘Shooter!’ ”
Nearby, Ashlee Jaffe, 39, was sitting on a park bench with her son. They had just finished breakfast at Walker Bros.’ Original Pancake House when the gunfire started.
Before she could piece together what was happening, a bullet struck Jaffe’s left hand. She yanked her 5-year-old underneath the bench and wrapped her body around him as he shrieked.
Around her, hundreds of paradegoers were making the same frantic calculations, desperately seeking shelter as bullets rained from the sky. Some ran toward open coffee shops and restaurants. Others hid behind ceramic flower pots or sprinted down the street. Two days after the shooting, many residents of this town were replaying the scene in their minds, trying to make sense of tragedy.
“We didn’t know where [the shooter] was located,” said Joel Kagan, who was at the parade with his family. “We didn’t know that he wasn’t on the ground. We didn’t know that he was on the roof. We didn’t know where he was. We only heard the shots, which kept coming and coming and coming.”
Kagan fled to Smart Jewelers, the store he owns, where he sheltered in place with 16 people — including 11 he didn’t know. They spent the next couple of hours there before police escorted them to their vehicles.
From two stories up, the gunman reloaded his Smith & Wesson M&P15 semiautomatic rifle, once and then again, officials later said, firing 90 bullets in about a minute.
The suspect, Robert E. Crimo III, had been planning the massacre for weeks, police said. On the day of the shooting, he climbed a fire escape to the roof of a business and aimed a rifle into the heart of this Chicago suburb’s shopping district near the start of the parade route, according to authorities.
Minutes after children pedaled by on bicycles festooned with streamers and American flags, their pet dogs in tow, the gunman opened fire.
Marissa Haas attends the parade every year — even returning from a vacation home in Wisconsin to make sure she sees the marching band, dogs in costume and firetrucks. On Monday, she and her daughter had just watched the marching band go by when they heard pops. At first, Haas thought they were shots fired by the Civil War reenactors — a parade staple.
But the shots became more rapid.
“That’s when my sister screamed, ‘Oh my God, it’s real. Get up and go!’ ” said Haas, 48.
“I looked up and masses of people were flying toward us,” she said. “My sister grabbed her 3-year-old and her husband grabbed their 6-year-old. My daughter got up and ran.”
Haas’s 9-year-old nephew froze in the street, not moving. “I said, ‘Jack, I need you to run with me,’ ” Haas said. “I was probably hurting him, but I just grabbed him by the waist and was, like, carrying him.”
Haas’s 6-year-old niece and her brother-in-law lost their shoes in the street from running so fast.
Cassie Goldstein told NBC News on Tuesday that she was at the parade with her mother, Katherine Goldstein, when they heard what they thought were firecrackers. “And then I looked up, and I saw the shooter shooting down at the kids,” the 22-year-old told anchor Lester Holt. “And I told her that it was a shooter and that she had to run.”
Shortly after they started running, Katherine Goldstein was shot in the chest and hit the pavement, her daughter said. “I knew she was dead,” Cassie Goldstein told NBC. “I just told her that I loved her, but I couldn’t stop, because he was still shooting everyone next to me.”
When Emily Lieberman, a pediatrician, heard the bullets, she scooped her 5-year-old in her arms; her husband grabbed their 8-year-old. After getting separated from her husband in the rush, Lieberman and her 5-year-old found their way into an open winery, entered a single-person bathroom, locked the door and shut off the light.
After a few minutes, others fleeing the scene started banging on the door, pleading for Lieberman to open it. She did, and 16 people crammed inside, frantically texting loved ones. Two hours later, her husband and brother-in-law slipped past a barricade in a car to pick her up.
“The fact that my children will have this memory for the rest of their lives is what’s most devastating,” Lieberman said.
Karen Abrams found a hiding place in Country Kitchen, four blocks from the shooting. When she emerged an hour and a half later she saw a man walking away from the scene covered in blood. “I asked him if he was okay, and he said, ‘It’s not my blood, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay.’ ”
She made her way toward the intersection to see if she could find any family and friends, but she was stopped by a man. “You don’t want to see this,” he told her.
According to police, Crimo abandoned his rifle and made his escape by blending in with terrified crowds rushing from the scene. He wore women’s clothing and makeup to cover his facial tattoos, according to Christopher Covelli, a spokesman for the Lake County Major Crime Task Force.
Soon after the shooting ended, Lauren Silva, Tom Brooks and Morgan Brooks crept out of the underground parking garage where they had been hiding.
They emerged to a gruesome sight: bodies on the ground, chairs, teddy bears and Barbie dolls abandoned in the stampede. Shaken, they were about to return to the garage when Morgan Brooks looked at a victim and saw a toddler was pinned beneath him, he said. He and his father pried the boy, Aiden McCarthy, out from under the man they later identified as Kevin McCarthy.
Authorities later confirmed that Kevin McCarthy and Aiden’s mother, Irina McCarthy, were killed in the shooting.
Tom Brooks gave Aiden to Silva, he said. Meanwhile, Morgan Brooks ripped off his Grateful Dead T-shirt to try to make a tourniquet for Kevin McCarthy, who was bleeding profusely from his inner thigh, he said. Back below ground, Silva tried to comfort Aiden by telling him about her own children.
Soon after, Silva handed the boy off to Greg and Dana Ring, who had run to their car in the parking garage after narrowly escaping the shooting. Police eventually reunited Aiden with his grandparents.
A few miles away, Jaffe, a pediatric physiatrist in Philadelphia, sat in the emergency room waiting area at NorthShore Highland Park Hospital with her hand wrapped in gauze. She heard staff repeating the words “Code Blue” as emergency vehicles dropped off victims. About 30 people were injured in the shooting, along with the seven killed.
Less critical patients began to take seats around her: a war veteran who said he’d never been shot at in combat but suffered a bullet to the leg at the parade; a couple who had their legs peppered with shards of broken glass as storefront windows shattered beside them.
Jaffe caught a ride to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where she received stitches.
“I guess if you have to get a gunshot wound in a mass casualty event, I am so fortunate to have that one,” Jaffe said.
In other parts of town, families were urged to stay inside as police searched for the gunman. Drivers seeking to rescue loved ones from hiding places near the parade route were turned away by officers. Those who ventured out from hiding in the hours after the shooting sprinted down sidewalks and through parking garages toward home or their cars, unsure whether the terror was over, they said.
‘This is it’
As Highland Park residents were sheltering in place, Crimo borrowed his mother’s car and began to drive, police said.
Officials say the suspect traveled to Madison, Wis., where he “seriously contemplated” using a KelTec rifle and approximately 60 rounds that were in his car to commit another shooting, according to Covelli.
Covelli said it was unclear why Crimo did not follow through but said there were indications that he did not think he’d done enough planning. The suspect continued to drive, eventually abandoning his phone in neighboring Middleton, Wis., Covelli said.
Eventually, authorities say, Crimo made his way back to the North Chicago area, where Ryan Lerman, 19, was delivering pizzas. He was nervous while starting his shift, given that the shooter was still on the loose, he said. Some of Lerman’s co-workers had even called out, too frightened to come to work.
As he drove through the northwest suburbs, Lerman kept an eye out for a silver Honda Fit, the car authorities said the gunman was driving. Then, while sitting inside his Hyundai at an intersection in Lake Forest, he saw one. He was, he said, “just horrified.” What if the shooting started again?
Before he could call in what he saw, a swarm of patrol cars pulled up, lights flashing. Lerman backed up, then pulled out his phone and started recording as officers jumped out of their cars. They stood back, guns drawn, and gave Crimo orders over a loudspeaker, the footage shows.
“He just, like, instantly complied,” Lerman recalled. “I think he was just, ‘This is it.’ ”
He kept recording as the suspected shooter, seemingly emotionless, lay on the pavement and a swarm of officers closed in. Then authorities directed Lerman and other motorists away from the scene as they prepared to close the road.
He snapped pictures of the line of patrol cars and an armored vehicle.
It was scary, he said, and surreal. He lives in a suburb 10 miles from Highland Park and knew people who had to run from the gunfire at the parade.
By about 6:25 p.m., Crimo was taken into custody, Assistant State’s Attorney Ben Dillon said. He confessed to Highland Park police, saying he had fired three 30-round magazines at the crowd, according to Dillon.
Brittany Shammas in Highland Park and Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.