(Adds authorities found explosive material in shooter’s bag)
By Bill Trott
COLUMBIA, Md., Jan 25 (Reuters) - A gunman opened fire with a shotgun in a skate shop at a crowded shopping mall near Baltimore on Saturday, killing two store employees and wounding another person before apparently killing himself, police said.
Howard County police said they did not know the motive for the shooting at the large mall in Columbia, Maryland, about 20 miles (32 km) west of Baltimore. Police said they have tentatively identified the shooter, who was carrying explosive material in a bag, but did not release his name.
Police identified the victims as Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, Maryland, and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mt. Airy, Maryland. Johnson had recently moved to Mt. Airy from Ellicott City, police said. Both were employees of Zumiez, a skate shop where the shooting took place.
One person suffered a gunshot wound to the foot, and four others were injured in the chaos, police said. Howard County General Hospital said all five people had been treated and released. The person shot in the foot was a level below the Zumiez store, police said.
The shooting happened at about 11:15 a.m. EST (1615 GMT) on the mall’s upper level just above the food court. The mall, which has more than 200 stores, was crowded with weekend shoppers, many of whom sheltered in place after hearing the shots or seeing people fleeing.
Police, who were in the area on another case, responded to the emergency calls within two minutes and found all three bodies either in the store or just outside it. Police said they believe the man shot himself to death.
Police said in a statement Saturday night that a search of the shooter’s bag found inside the store revealed “two crude devices that appeared to be an attempt at making explosives using fireworks.”
Police said both devices were disabled, and that police will conduct a thorough search of the mall using K-9 units through the night. Investigators also were reviewing footage from surveillance cameras around the mall.
The mall will remain closed on Sunday, police said, though people may retrieve vehicles from the mall parking lot this evening.
It took hours for state and Howard County police, joined by authorities from neighboring counties, to clear the building of shoppers and employees and ensure there were no other shooters.
“This took a long time because you can imagine how many rooms there are in the mall, how many back offices, bathrooms and dressing rooms and nooks and crannies in the mall,” Howard County Executive Ken Ulman told reporters.
A friend of Benlolo, Paul Dorion Malcolm, 24, said she had a young son.
“I met a lot of young mothers that have kids, but I’ve never met a mom so devoted. She took that kid everywhere, when she wasn’t working at Zumiez she was with her kid,” Malcolm said in a phone interview.
“Her energy was amazing: always upbeat, positive,” said Malcolm, who used to work at a shoe store at the mall and met Benlolo there last year.
A visitor to the mall said the shooting caused panic.
Tonya Broughton of Silver Spring, Maryland, was having a ladies’ day out with friend Tarah Lancaster-Williams when they saw people running.
“We were getting facials at a kiosk on the lower level when everyone started running,” Broughton said. “We just headed for the nearest store, Victoria’s Secret. I still had the facial on.”
She said the Victoria’s Secret employees herded everyone to the rear of the store.
“They were very nice, keeping us calm. They told us we were safe,” Broughton said.
Colin Reddy, who works at the mall, told CNN he heard about eight or nine shots in all.
“We thought it was construction because there’s a lot of construction going on at the mall right now. Then I heard it again. Like ‘boom, boom, boom.’ And then everybody started running,” he said.
Reddy said he and the other employees closed the store’s gate and waited in a back room for police to arrive.
Zumiez, which has more than 400 stores across the United States, said in a statement it was “deeply saddened by the violence” at its store. The company said it was arranging counseling for its employees in the area.
The attack in Columbia follows a shooting at a New Jersey mall in November in which a gunman fired at least six shots without hitting anyone, sparking a mass evacuation of the complex, then killing himself.
There also has been a spate of shootings in recent days at U.S. schools and universities. A student was shot dead on Friday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, and at Purdue University in Indiana a teacher’s assistant was shot and killed on Tuesday. In both incidents, suspects have been charged with the crimes. (Reporting by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa in Maryland; Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Missouri; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Victoria Cavaliere in New York; Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by James Dalgleish, David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)