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Panic At Gunfire In Toy Store

Shoppers scramble as an apparently personal dispute in Palm Desert ends with two men killing each other.

November 29, 2008|Seema Mehta, Michelle Maltais and Kimi Yoshino | Mehta, Maltais and Yoshino are Times staff writers.
  • Police and emergency personnel work outside a Toys R Us store in Palm Desert on Black Friday after two people were shot to death in the crowded toy store. The confrontation apparently involved rival groups, city officials said.
Police and emergency personnel work outside a Toys R Us store in Palm Desert… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

PALM DESERT AND LOS ANGELES — Most shoppers headed to the Toys R Us in Palm Desert on Friday morning clutching their "door buster" ads and their shopping lists. At least two men walked into the busy store armed with their guns.

Instead of the usual frantic chaos on Black Friday, the year's busiest shopping day, mayhem erupted in the electronics department about 11:30 a.m., leaving two men dead in a gunfight and crowds of shoppers ducking for cover.

Joan Barrick, 40, of Desert Hot Springs said she was buying a Barbie Jeep for her daughter when two women started brawling. As the women swung at each other, the men they were with also started arguing.

The younger of the two lifted up his shirt and flashed his handgun, pulling the grip from his baggy pants pocket. The other man yanked out his own handgun and started chasing him down the aisle and firing, witnesses said.

Barrick hid behind a stack of DVDs and recited the Lord's Prayer. "If I'm going to die, I need to make peace," she said. "A lot of people were crying. I was crying. We were all very, very scared."

As the two men ran shooting through the aisles, shoppers dumped their purchases. LaToya Jenkins, 20, had already bought a remote-control bike. She dropped it and ran. Others left behind shopping carts full of the bargain-priced toys they had come in search of.

Several witnesses saw the gunmen clearly. Some cried out warnings: "He has a gun!" and "¡Pistola! ¡Pistola!" Barrick was so close she could see the smoking gun.

"This is horrible," said a shaken Sara Frahm, 25. "I'm never shopping on Black Friday again."

Clarisa Valerio, 45, of Thermal said that when the man first brandished his gun, she heard him threaten to kill the other. She didn't believe it was real. "Since we were in a toy store, I thought it was a toy gun," Valerio said in Spanish. "My husband pushed me and said: 'Let's go. Didn't you hear what he said?' "

As her husband started heading to safety, Valerio turned back when she remembered that her daughter, 18, was still checking on the price of a toy car set. The shooting started almost immediately.

"I was hysterical," Valerio said. "This man pushed me to the ground. He put his arms around me and his disabled wife and held me."

Riverside County sheriff's officials declined to release the names of the dead men, whose bodies were found near the front of the store. Police retrieved handguns on the floor near both of them.

"These guys ran into each other, they squared off against each other, they killed each other," said Sheriff's Capt. Daniel Wilham. "It's a miracle that these were the only two people killed, given it was a crowded toy store."

Wilham said it appeared there was some "previous hostility" between the two couples.

Even after the shooting, one woman was still screaming angrily. In raw video footage posted on the website for KESQ-TV Channel 3, the woman is being handcuffed and led to a police car. "I'm going to . . . kill you right now!" she shouted, slamming her fists on the car. "I'm going to kill you! Yeah, you!"

Toys R Us officials released a statement saying they were "outraged by the act of violence . . . and by the fact that anyone would compromise the safety and security of our customers and employees.

"Our understanding is that this act seems to have been the result of a personal dispute between the individuals involved. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to associate the events of today with Black Friday," the statement said.

In the first moments after the shooting subsided, the store became eerily quiet. Some people remained frozen in their tracks. Others tried to find the friends and family they had become separated from. Dozens of shoppers poured out a back emergency exit and fled to the nearest havens: a Jiffy Lube and a World Gym.

Saul Diaz, an assistant manager at Jiffy Lube, said a stampede of about 45 people ran into the store, a few distraught and crying. "They were running fast, straight into the car bays," he said. "There was a couple of ladies with little kids, about 3 years [old]. They were all pale. The kids were shouting, 'Mom, I'm scared.' "

One crying woman walked into the gym with an infant cradled in her arms.

Outside Pizza Hut, where witnesses were being interviewed, 3-year-old Landon Stitt sat on the grass munching on his pizza. He spoke matter-of-factly, almost as if he was describing a video game.

"I saw it," he said. "They were fighting. They were shooting." He shaped his fingers into a gun, then fired into the air.

As night fell, the coroner's office had still not removed the bodies from the store. But authorities said they expected Toys R Us to be open for business this morning.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

michelle.maltais @latimes.com

kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Evelyn Larrubia, Stuart Pfeifer and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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Seema Mehta and Michelle Maltais reporting from Palm Desert

Kimi Yoshino reporting from Los Angeles

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