Omaha, NE.—When the President of the United States comes to Nebraska it’s always a big deal, unless it’s December 5, 2007.
That was the day George W. Bush was supposed to be the story of the day.
And he was until just after 1:30 that afternoon.
The President had come and gone when the newsroom’s police scanner blurted out something about gunshots at Omaha’s Westroads Mall.
A few minutes later another dispatch that one person had been shot and killed, moments later word of a second victim—then nothing more, not for a long while.
Sgt. Jeff Baker was one of the first Omaha police officers inside the Von Maur department store:
I arrived and entered the store, scanning across the top of a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with rifled slugs. I fought the instinct to announce my presence as it has been ingrained in us to do. I couldn’t afford to reveal my position to the gunman. In a breathtaking moment, two terrified citizens popped up and raced to me, then past and out the doors behind, tears streaming down their faces.
Everywhere I looked, I saw and smelled evidence of a monster on the loose: Store employees frozen under display cases; the first gunshot victim, mortally wounded, surrounded by 7.62mm shell casings; the smell of gunfire hanging in the air, reminiscent of the firecrackers I enjoyed as a kid.
Christmas music played, eerily juxtaposed with the blaring fire alarm. I became conscious of my quickened breathing. Moderately asthmatic, I was puffing a bit as I relayed information on my portable radio to incoming responders.
Coffee cups, empty strollers and shopping bags littered the floors, abandoned at the spot people started to run. We formed up contact teams and incrementally cleared the mall, evacuating hundreds of shoppers and employees who had hidden in some unusual places.
…I’m just gonna say it: Responding to this incident proved jarringly scary.
Several hours later in a parking lot full of cameras and reporters a police spokesperson announced that eight people had been murdered without warning.
Eight people? In Omaha? The spokesperson must have misspoke. She hadn’t.
A 19-year-old armed with an AK-47 high-powered military style assault rifle had opened fire on Von Maur’s 3rd floor, killing six employees and two Christmas-time customers. He also injured five people—13 innocent victims in all.
And then Robert Hawkins shot and killed himself. He left behind a handwritten suicide note: “I’ve just snapped. I can’t take this meaningless existence anymore.”
According to several reports, the Westroads massacre is the second deadliest mall shooting in U.S. history. Five years ago 12 people were shot and killed and 70 others injured at the Town Center multiplex theater in Aurora, Colorado.