OMAHA — Holiday shoppers scattered in terror Wednesday as a young gunman sprayed a shopping mall with gunfire, killing eight people and wounding five others before he fatally shot himself.
Nebraska public safety officials and witnesses said most of the casualties were inside the Von Maur department store at the Westroads Mall on Omaha's west side. The 20-year-old assailant, who wore military-style camouflage, opened fire from the store's third floor shortly after 1 p.m., targeting employees and customers with a semi-automatic weapon, witnesses said.
"At first I thought somebody was hammering, and then I realized nobody could hammer that fast," said Keith Fidler, a Von Maur store associate who said he watched in horror as the gunman shot an employee standing a few feet away. The victim collapsed near an escalator, Fidler said. "It was quiet for a few seconds, and then I heard a burst of about 30 to 50 rounds."
The shooter, whom Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren identified as Robert Hawkins, left several suicide notes. In an evening news conference, Warren declined to speculate on Hawkins' motives, saying: "When you have an incident of this nature, it may be impossible to come up with an explanation."
Police and sheriff's officers swarmed into the mall within minutes, tending to the wounded and ushering out dozens of panicked customers and employees who were hiding inside bathrooms and dressing rooms.
"Everybody was scared, and we didn't know what was going on," said Belene Esaw-Kagbara, 31, another Von Maur employee. "We didn't know what to do. I was praying that God protect us."
Occurring just three weeks before Christmas, the Omaha slayings came as a stark reminder that crowded American malls are potential targets for violence. In February, five people were slain at the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City by a gunman who was then killed by police.
Wednesday's death toll marked the worst shooting rampage in Nebraska since 1958, when teenager Charles Starkweather gunned down nine people during a two-day murder spree across the state.
Less than an hour after the first 911 calls were received, Omaha police found Hawkins' body. Warren said an SKS semi-automatic rifle was recovered at the crime scene. ABC News reported that officials said the weapon had two loaded magazines taped together -- a technique that enables a shooter to reload quickly.
The Omaha World-Herald reported that witnesses said the gunman had a close-cropped, military-style haircut, wore a camouflage vest and carried a black backpack.
"The person we believe to be the shooter died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound," said Omaha police Sgt. Teresa Negron.
Sarpy County sheriff's officials said Hawkins had left a note, and several Omaha television stations reported that police had recovered at least three notes left with relatives and friends in the area.
Deputies later searched a Bellevue residence where Hawkins had lived in recent months. Police also used a robotic device to search for explosives inside a green Jeep that officials believe Hawkins left in the mall's parking lot. The search did not turn up any explosives.
On Omaha television broadcasts, those who knew Hawkins said he was a troubled youth who dropped out of high school a year ago. Hawkins recently was fired from a job at a local McDonald's and had been taking medication for emotional problems, several friends said.
"He was depressed the last couple months, but I never thought he'd do something that extreme," a friend, Shawn Saunders, told KETV.
When the first shots rang out Wednesday, the mall was crowded. Christmas music played on the Von Maur store's sound system. It was just past the lunch hour, a time when the mall's traffic typically thins out.
When Keith Fidler, who worked on Von Maur's second floor, heard rapid-fire noises from the floor above, it took several seconds before he realized something was terribly wrong. "There were bursts and then it would get quiet and then you'd hear these shots again," Fidler said. "After the first bunch, it was unmistakably gunshots."
He said he heard a woman call out to a store employee approaching an escalator, asking him to call 911. The employee had no time to react. The gunman leaned over a third-floor railing and squeezed off several shots. The man crumpled to the ground. "He appeared to be shot in the head," Fidler said.
Fidler crouched down for a few moments and when the gunshots trailed off, he and another woman maneuvered to the downed man. Fidler examined the man and realized he was not breathing.
Renee Toney was working at Von Maur's customer service desk when the gunman rushed toward her, screaming for someone to open the vault, said Toney's husband, Jimmy Toney.
When he opened fire, she raced for a storage area.
"My wife was the only one in customer service who did not get shot," Jimmy Toney said, adding that she was too exhausted for an interview. "She was the only one who made it to the room."