People walk down stairs to evacuate from the Westroads Mall after a gunman opened fire at a Von Maur store in the complex in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007. At least one person was wounded and police locked down the shopping center while they search
Photo credit: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
OMAHA, Nebraska -- The young gunman who opened fire at a mall busy with holiday shoppers appeared to choose his victims at random, according to police, but a note he left behind hinted at a troubled life.
Robert A. Hawkins had recently split with his girlfriend and been fired from his job at McDonald's. He had a criminal record for drug and alcohol offenses and had left or been kicked out of his parents' house.
On Wednesday afternoon, the 19-year-old carried a rifle into the sprawling Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, and opened fire. Shoppers and employees scrambled for cover in dressing rooms, clothing racks, offices and storage areas.
Eight people were killed and five wounded before the shooter ended the horror by taking his own life.
The note he left behind read, in part, "Now I'll be famous."
Police Chief Thomas Warren said the shooting appeared to be random. He gave no motive for the attack, but promised more details in a news conference scheduled for Thursday morning.
Hawkins moved from his family's home about a year ago. He moved in with a friend's family, and Debora Maruca-Kovac and her husband welcomed him into their home and tried to help him.
"When he first came in the house, he was introverted, a troubled young man who was like a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted," Maruca-Kovac told The Associated Press.
She told the Omaha World-Herald that the night before the shooting, Hawkins and her sons showed her an SKS semiautomatic Russian military rifle - the same type used in the shooting. She said she thought the gun belonged to a member of Hawkins' family. She said she did not think much of it - the gun looked too old to work.
Records showed Hawkins had a felony drug conviction and several misdemeanor cases filed against him, including an arrest 11 days before the shooting for having alcohol as a minor. He was due in court in two weeks.
Maruca-Kovac said Hawkins had recently broken up with a girlfriend and was fired from McDonald's. She told the World-Herald that Hawkins said he had been fired after being accused of stealing $17 (euro11.55) from his till at the restaurant. McDonald's management declined to comment to the newspaper.
Maruca-Kovac said he phoned her at about 1 p.m. Wednesday, telling her he had left a note. She tried to get him to explain.
"He said, 'It's too late,'" and hung up, she told CNN. She then called Hawkins' mother.
In the note, which was turned over to authorities, Hawkins wrote that he was "sorry for everything" and would not be a burden on his family anymore. More ominously, he wrote, "Now I'll be famous."
"I was fearful that he was going to try to commit suicide but I had no idea that he would involve so many other families." Maruca-Kovac said Thursday on CBS television's "The Early Show."
Maruca-Kovac went to her job as a nurse at the Nebraska Medical Center, where victims of the shooting soon began to arrive.
The first emergency call came in at 1:42 p.m., and the shooting was already over when police arrived six minutes later, authorities said.
The World-Herald reported that the gunman had a military-style haircut and a black backpack, and wore a camouflage vest.
Hawkins opened fire in a Von Maur store, part of a Midwestern chain.
Mickey Vickory, who worked in the store's third-floor service department, said she heard shots and went with co-workers and customers into a back closet, emerging about a half-hour later when police shouted to come out with their hands up. As police led them to another part of the mall for safety, they saw the victims.
"We saw the bodies and we saw the blood," she said.
Keith Fidler, another Von Maur employee, said he heard a burst of five to six shots followed by 15 to 20 more rounds. Fidler said he huddled in the corner of the men's clothing department with about a dozen other employees until police yelled to get out of the store.
On Wednesday night, police used a bomb robot to access a Jeep Cherokee left in the mall parking lot that authorities believe belonged to Hawkins. Officers had seen some wires under some clothing, but no bomb was found.
President George W. Bush was in Omaha on Wednesday for a fundraiser, but left about an hour before the shooting.
"Having just visited with so many members of the community in Omaha today, the president is confident that they will pull together to comfort one another," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
It was the second mass shooting at a U.S. mall this year. In February, nine people were shot, five of them fatally, at a mall in Salt Lake City. The gunman, 18-year-old Sulejman Talovic, was shot and killed by police.
Associated Press writers Josh Funk, Timberly Ross and Eric Olson in Omaha and Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington contributed to this report.