A fistfight among neighborhood gang members during an arts festival in Trenton, N.J., escalated into a mass shooting Sunday, leaving 22 people, including a 13-year-old boy, injured, authorities said.
The Art All Night event, an annual 24-hour festival that draws thousands of people, was on the verge of getting shut down Sunday morning because of several fights inside and outside the venue, a historic building near downtown Trenton. Gunshots rang out at about 2:45 a.m., when several members of local gangs began shooting at each other, Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri told reporters.
The mood inside the venue “had been changing,” prompting police officers who were working security at the event to begin dispersing the crowd, Onofri said. Moments later, the shooting began.
One suspect, Tahaij Wells, a 33-year-old man with a lengthy criminal history and who recently served time for homicide-related charges, was fatally shot by a police officer. Wells was released from prison in February.
A second suspect, Amir Armstrong, 23, has been arrested and is facing firearms charges. Onofri said a third suspect, whom he did not name, was struck in the gunfire and was in critical condition at a hospital as of Sunday evening.
It remains unclear what caused the fight to begin.
Of those injured, 17 were wounded by gunfire, while the others suffered other injuries during the chaos. Onofri said the 13-year-old boy, the youngest of the victims, is now in stable condition at a hospital.
Onofri said police had confiscated several weapons, including a handgun with an extended-capacity magazine, which means it contained more ammunition than what is legal in New Jersey.
In a Facebook post recapping the horror, event volunteer Krystal Knapp said her shift was nearing its end when the commotion began. People pushed and shoved one another. Several began running in Knapp’s direction, so she stood up from her chair, rushed toward the exit, and was knocked down as she reached the door.
“A kind woman pulled me up and over to the side and told me to stay down with her,” Knapp wrote. “A woman three feet from us was shot in the leg. I’m not sure how many people were shot.”
Onofri said the shooting “absolutely could’ve been worse given the confined space and the number of shots that appear to have been fired.” He said there were about 1,000 people at the event when gunshots were fired.
There are no metal detectors in the building, Onofri said.
Authorities are also investigating an attempted carjacking that occurred in a nearby alley shortly after the shooting, Onofri said. One person came up to a vehicle with three passengers and may have pointed a gun at them. It’s unclear whether that incident was connected to the shooting.
Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson condemned what he said was not “just a random act of violence” but a “public health issue” that follows gruesome school shootings that have reignited a nationwide debate over gun control. Just a month ago, a 17-year-old student armed with a shotgun and a pistol opened fire at a high school in Santa Fe, Tex., killing 10 and wounding at least 10.
“All shootings, whether large or small, are a crisis. It’s a fact that our cities as well as our suburbs throughout America are experiencing an increase in public shootings and public unrest such as this,” Jackson, a Democrat, told reporters.
Art All Night is an annual event held in June. More than 900 artists submit their work for display, and attendance surges into the thousands, about 13,000 in 2011, for example, according to the event’s Facebook page.
Event organizers said in a statement Sunday that all staff members, volunteers, artists and musicians are accounted for.
“We know there are a lot of questions and a lot of speculation at this point. We’re still trying ourselves to piece this entire situation together … We’re very shocked. We’re deeply saddened. Our hearts ache and our eyes are blurry but our dedication and resolve to building a better Trenton community, creativity and inspiration will never fade,” the statement said.
Franco Roberts said loud music is usually playing at the event, but that wasn’t the case when he and his girlfriend arrived about 2:30 a.m. They were told that the building would be shut down and turned around to see people “squaring up to fight,” Roberts told Homicide Watch Trenton, a community news site.
That’s when he heard gunshots.
“Everybody ran toward the door,” Roberts said. “And the people fighting got mixed with the crowd that was running and they went out the door shooting.”
Irvin Higgenbotham, who comes to the event every year, said he was walking with his bike when he heard gunfire. He was shot in the leg.
“I was like, ‘pow, pow pow,’ and then I was laying down on the ground,” he told NJ.com.
Hours later, Higgenbotham, with crutches and his left leg completely covered in bandages, went back to the crime scene to find out what had happened.
Knapp, the event volunteer, said she had scrapes on her knees and elbows and a small bump on her head, but she’s grateful she wasn’t shot. Off-duty officers were working security at the event all night, but Knapp said, “some idiot decided to pull out a gun and harm the best night of the year in Trenton.”
“I hope this doesn’t ruin Art All Night,” she added. “That would be letting violence win.”