Florida Mall Shooting Likely Gang Violence, Say Police

Dec. 25--A fight among possible gang members exploded into violence at Boynton Beach Mall while it was packed with Christmas Eve shoppers.

One man was left dead in a pool of blood on the mall floor. Customers dropped to the floor, hid in store closets and ran for cover to avoid stray bullets. Police chased the suspected shooter into a department store, where he barricaded himself and eventually was arrested.

Outside, off Congress Avenue, police moved thousands of cars out of mall parking lots and onto streets already gridlocked with holiday traffic.

The chaos broke out around 2:30 p.m. in front of J.C. Penney, police said.

Several young men -- possibly rival members of Boynton Beach-Lake Worth area gangs -- got into a fight.

One pulled a gun and shot another. The shooter ran across the mall, firing at two city police officers in pursuit. Some shoppers heard as many as five shots.

Police chased the shooter into Dillard's women's store, and finally the SWAT team swept through the store, found him and he surrendered at about 3:30 p.m.

In a scene reminiscent of the Columbine High School massacre, police led groups of mall shoppers and employees out of the department store with their arms in the air.

They were questioned and released.

No one else was injured. Police fired no shots throughout the incident.

"Our officers exercised great discretion by not returning fire," Boynton Beach Police Maj. Frank Briganti said.

Sinette White and Angelique Garcia, both 19 and from Lake Worth, were getting manicures when they heard a loud noise.

"It sounded like something fell, but then people started running into the nail salon and said someone got shot," White said. "Then we all started running out into the mall. We saw little children huddling in the corners with their mothers."

White and Garcia came across the victim and a crowd gathered, they said.

"It was bad. He was lying in a puddle of blood. They were trying to do CPR, but it didn't work. There were a lot of cops running around," White said.

After police ordered the crowd to disperse, White and Garcia heard more shots, possibly as many as five. They ran back to the nail salon, where they waited for an hour.

Bradley Limage, 19, a stock clerk at J.C. Penney, was on break and heading for the food court when he heard an argument between young men across from the store.

"I heard a pop and then the guy was lying on the floor and shaking," Limage said. "Then ... people were screaming and crying, pushing to get out of the mall."

Other mall employees said the mall was busy, but not packed, on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Clutching bags filled with holiday gifts, Zapporah Miller, 17, of Delray Beach was ready to do more shopping when the gunman ran past her, she said.

"I was afraid. I ran into Champs and then they started closing it."

Miller said people inside were in tears. Some had witnessed the shooting.

She said an announcement over the mall's public-address system told everyone to leave.

"They didn't give any reason," Miller said.

As they were turned away from the mall, drivers expressed shock and disbelief.

"I can't believe it. I always shop here," said Melissa Mobley, 28, of Boynton Beach, who wanted to do some last-minute shopping. "The crime is out of hand. This is awful."

Sisters Tonya and Lynn Sweeney said they were shopping for Christmas presents when they saw a fight break out between two men.

"One pulled out a gun and just started shooting," said 16-year-old Tonya Sweeney whose mother works at Yankee Candle at the mall. "He started running and people said he ended up at Dillard's."

Others said they were inconvenienced.

"I'm [out of luck]," said Jimmy Adeola, 49, of Lake Worth. "I bought for everyone except my wife. What is this world coming to when you can't even be safe at the mall?"

Near Dillard's entrance, police tried to get curious people away from the building, while a lone officer crouched motionless behind an SUV -- his gun drawn and pointed at one of the store's entrances. Others hid behind parked parks, school buses and a SWAT van. A Sheriff's Office helicopter buzzed overhead.

Susan Gerhard and her family were among the shoppers led out of Dillard's with their hands up. She said she was shopping with her daughter and granddaughter at Dillard's when they heard people shouting and running.

"We saw someone that looked like a security guard draw a gun and we just ran into a room," she said. "We knew there was something going on."

Gerhard and her family found a closet near the north entrance of the department store, where employees were having a Christmas lunch. The eight barricaded themselves in the room until the SWAT team swarmed the store.

"It was terrifying," Gerhard's daughter, Jennifer Scott, said.

Scott said they heard people shouting, stands being knocked over and doors being slammed.

When the SWAT team got to their room, they ordered them to walk outside slowly with their hands up.

"It scared the poor kid out of her mind," Gerhard said of her 14-year-old granddaughter.

Silvana Soleri, who said she worked at a store, but wouldn't say which one, said she felt an incident such as the shooting was bound to happen.

"You just got the feeling," she said. "There's a lot of young men standing around and loitering. Maybe now because of the incident we'll get more policing."

By 5 p.m. most of the parking lot was empty, but patrol cars still guarded each of the mall's entrances.

Staff Researcher Jeremy Milarsky contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.