A man armed with a semi-automatic rifle entered an Omaha shopping mall Wednesday and opened fire on Christmas shoppers, killing at least eight people and sending hundreds diving for cover before turning the gun on himself.
|A member of the Omaha police blocks access to the Westroad Mall 05 December 2007 in Omaha, Nebraska (Photo: AFP)|
At least five other people were injured and taken to area hospitals after the shooting inside the Westroads Mall, Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren told reporters late Wednesday.
The shooting "appears to be very random and without provocation," Warren said, adding that police were still interviewing witnesses.
He identified the shooter as Robert Hawkins, 19, and said that he was armed with an SKS assault rifle.
"We believe there was one shooter and one shooter only," he said.
"We do have a (suicide) note," Warren said. "I can't describe the contents of this note, but it does appear this incident was premeditated."
Warren emphasized that police were "in the very preliminary stages of this investigation."
Hawkins' landlady, Debora Maruca Kovac, told CNN that in the note the shooter said "that he was sorry for everything, that he didn't want to be a burden to anybody, he loved his family, he loved all of his friends. He was a piece of shit all of his life and now he'll be famous."
Kovac said that Hawkins had lived in her house for a year and a half, and in the last weeks had broken up with his girlfriend.
"He was withdrawn," Kovac told CNN. "He was like a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted."
One of the local newspapers, the Omaha World Herald, reported that Hawkins had also been fired from his job at a McDonald's, and was arrested Friday for being a minor in posession of alcohol -- the legal drinking age in the United States is 21 -- and had earlier been sent to jail for seven days in 2005 on charges of disorderly conduct.
The Sarpy County Sheriff's Department, located just south of Omaha in Papillion, told KETV that Hawkins' mother walked into its office shortly after the shooting with a note that "could be interpreted as suicidal."
The sheriff's office and Omaha police could not be immediately reached for comment.
Employees and shoppers fled the mall or locked themselves inside stores after hearing dozens of shots from the upscale Von Maur department store, where police said the shooting took place.
"People were freaking," an employee at Whitehall jewelers, who refused to give her name, told AFP by telephone.
Shoppers and workers described a terrifying scene.
"We heard about 35, 40 shots, and on our way we did see someone down by the escalator, bleeding," witness Jennifer Cramer told KETV.
"I was standing around getting ready to go back to work and all of a sudden I heard this bang, bang, bang -- it sounded like someone shooting fireworks," another witness told KETV. "I ran to get away from whatever was happening."
The Nebraska incident was the latest in a series of shootings in the United States, where private gun ownership is legal and widespread.
Late last month two people were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide at a Texas mall.
The woman was working at a store when she got a phone call from her angry boyfriend who threatened to harm her, local television station KHOU said.
The woman called mall security for help, but the boyfriend arrived before they did and took her hostage, pulling down the store's front gate and barricading them inside.
There have also been a series of school shootings this year, the worst being the Virginia Tech massacre in April in which 32 people were killed when a student went on a campus rampage.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported in September that more than 1.4 million murders, rapes, robberies and assaults were committed around the United States last year, or a violent crime every 22 seconds.
The number of victims of these violent crimes in the United States last year was the equivalent of the entire population of EU member Estonia or the African state of Gabon.
The rate of violent crime was up by 1.9 percent compared with 2005, with murders climbing by 1.8 percent to nearly 15,000 cases last year.
The shooting took place as President George W. Bush headed back to Washington after delivering a Republican fund-raising speech in Omaha.
Bush expressed sadness after learning about the latest in a series of shootings in the United States.
"His thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families this evening," the White House said in a statement.
"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 as they deal with this terrible tragedy," it said.