OMAHA, Neb. | They were ordinary people, plunged into a few moments of terror.They saw people die. Hundreds fled to safety.
Eight didn’t make it.
Among the dead were a mother of three working a part-time job to make extra money for her children’s Christmas presents, a young woman two weeks shy of her 25th birthday and a retiree whose brother lives in Independence.
As snow blanketed Omaha on Thursday and people filled churches for solace, a community and a country learned more about the eight people who died Wednesday at the hands of a rifle-toting young man at a Westroads Mall department store in the heart of the Midwest.
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Six of them worked at the store. They ranged in age from 24 to 66. All but one were shot on the third floor of Von Maur.
“They were innocent people going about their daily lives, performing their jobs and shopping for the holidays,” Mayor Mike Fahey said at a news conference. “Today, we are still reeling from events few of us could have imagined ever taking place here in Omaha.”
And so it was that residents retreated to places like St. John’s church on the campus of Creighton University, a Jesuit school that is a community focal point. They mourned the victims and tried to understand the gunman, Robert A. Hawkins, a 19-year-old high school dropout.
Estranged from his mother, taken in by friends, fresh from breaking up with his girlfriend and just fired from a McDonald’s, Hawkins emerged as a troubled youth who wanted attention. He was in foster homes for four years until he became an adult and he showed signs of mental illness.
“We tend to see violence as senseless; we tend to see violence as irrational,” the Rev. Andy Alexander said during the candlelight memorial service that drew about 100 people. Joan Lanahan, chaplain at Creighton, said the shooting made twisted sense to Hawkins.
“It wasn’t senseless to him,” Lanahan said. “The tragedy is that no one picked up on it ahead of time.”
Four people were wounded in the shooting.
A candle for each of the nine dead was carried to the front of the church and placed on the altar.Beverly Flynn, 47, a local real estate agent, worked at Von Maur one day a week during the Christmas season. Friends say she loved the holidays and used the extra money on her children.She was barely alive when rescue crews arrived. She died at a local hospital.
“She was a family person; that was her priority,” said Derek Faulkner, who had worked with Flynn at NP Dodge Realty. “She was taking a part-time job to make a little extra for Christmas. To make sure those kids had a nice Christmas.”
Kathy and John McDonald, whose brother lives in Independence, were sitting in the customer service area, waiting for a present to be wrapped. They heard strange noises.
“Loud, loud noises,” Kathy McDonald said. “I mean one thinks it might be a gun but surely not.”
The couple scooted their chair over to a wall and crouched down behind it.
“But evidently when the shooter came in, John wasn’t completely hidden because he saw him and shot,” Kathy McDonald said. “And so I just stayed there frozen, and he didn’t see me.”John McDonald, 65, lived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River. Family members said he likely died instantly. His wife was not wounded.
“She stayed with him until the police came and forced her away so that they could do their work,” said Lois McDonald, a sister-in-law who lives in Independence.
Six others died.
Gary Scharf, 48, was on his way home to Lincoln after a business trip in Iowa when he stopped at Von Maur.
Angie Schuster of Omaha had planned to teach elementary school after graduating from college, but when she couldn’t find a job in the field, she started working in retail, said her older sister, Donna Kenkel. Schuster, 36, was a manager in the girls’ department. The department is near the third-floor elevator, which Kenkel said meant “she probably didn’t have any chance, any warning” against the gunman.
Dianne Trent, 53, a store employee, spent warm evenings tending to the flowers on her porch, drinking tea and chatting with her neighbor, Errol Schlenker.
Another employee, Gary Joy, 56, loved writing stories and poems and was a devoted son, his 91-year-old mother said.
Janet Jorgensen, 66, a longtime gift department employee, was popular with co-workers and customers alike, her daughter-in-law said.
Maggie Webb was new to the Omaha Von Maur store. She transferred there from a Chicago location earlier this year. She would have turned 25 in two weeks.
Signs of despair
On Wednesday, after confiding to the woman whose family took him in that he had been fired, Hawkins grabbed an AK-47 rifle, took an elevator to the third floor of Von Maur and opened fire. He then shot himself with the rifle police said he stole from his stepfather.
Court records show Hawkins was dogged by a troubled childhood. He had threatened to kill people before. When he was 14, Hawkins was sent to a treatment center in Waynesville, Mo., after threatening his stepmother, court records show.
Though his childhood was plagued with trouble, life seemed to be getting better for Hawkins. In early 2006 he stopped hopping from friend’s house to friend’s house and went to live with his friend Will and his family.
Debora Maruca-Kovac, Will’s mother, wanted to help him out of a tough spot. She saw the young man improve. He’d gotten his general education degree, a driver’s license and a job at a McDonald’s. He had a girlfriend.
But the relationship soured. Already stressed from the breakup, Hawkins was fired from his job at McDonald’s, reportedly for stealing $17.
By late Wednesday morning, police said, Hawkins had a plan. He left a message with his biological mother, text messaged friends and his old girlfriend.
He called Will and ended up talking with Maruca-Kovac. He was acting strangely, she said, and told her about some notes he’d written and where she could find them. He thanked her and her family for what they had done for him.
Hawkins drove to a friend’s house near the Von Maur store, where he had sometimes shopped. Wearing a camouflaged vest, he arrived at 1:42 p.m. at the main entrance, looked around for six minutes, left and then re-entered the store, according to security cameras at the mall, Police Chief Thomas Warren said.
He returned with a wadded-up hooded sweatshirt, believed to be concealing his rifle.
“He turns to the right and goes to the elevator,” Warren said. “As soon as he got off the elevator, he started firing shots.”
It was just a “bang, bang, bang” at first. To some, with the background of Christmas carols on the PA system, it sounded innocent enough.
Maybe it was construction. Maybe it was a light that had fallen or something big that had broke, thought Jan Hopkins.
But a floor down from where Hopkins was wrapping gifts, with less than an hour left in her shift, shopper Jennifer Kramer knew a gunshot when she heard it.
Kramer and her mother Marie were getting off the escalator at the second floor when panic set in and echoed down aisles and up and down floors of the fancy department store.
“My mom kept saying, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do?’.” Jennifer Kramer said.
The Kramers ran for cover, ducking into the middle of two circular pant racks. The pants covered them. They should be safe in here. Just no talking, Jennifer told her mother, who whispered over to tell her daughter her purse was sticking out.
“I told mom to just be quiet. Be quiet and pray.”
All around them people had scurried. Some inside back rooms. Underneath counters and into dressing rooms.
That’s where Hele Spivack ended up. She kept her calm, saying one thought over and over in her mind.
“Please keep Marisa safe. Please keep Marisa safe.”
Marisa is Spivack’s 29-year-old daughter who is six months pregnant. The two went to the mall together. Before the shooting broke out, the daughter had gone to the second floor.
At one point, the continuing gunshots were louder. They were getting closer to where Spivack was hiding.
On the same floor, Hopkins and others kept hidden in the stock room.
As they sat, afraid to even whisper or use the one cell phone in the group, they kept hearing the shots.
“It was almost like he was determined to shoot everyone in the customer service area until everyone was dead,” Hopkins said. “He kept walking back to the customer service area. I was praying he didn’t come through the doors.”
Finally, there was silence. An eerie silence.
“All you could hear were those Christmas carols,” Hopkins said. “And the phone, the phones were ringing constantly.”
Shoppers and employees could smell the gunpowder. Once the shooting stopped, the PA announced that police were coming. Six minutes seemed like forever.
While she waited, Spivack text messaged her daughter.
At 1:52 p.m. Spivack wrote: “I’m OK. Third-floor dressing room. I love you.”
Two minutes later, her daughter typed back, saying she was in a second-floor dressing room. “I love you, too.”
But before they were together again, police marched them and the hundreds of others out of Von Maur.
On their way out, they saw women with their faces down. A man lying dead on the second floor, near the escalator.
“You could be in the classiest department store in a town in the Midwest and get shot,” Hopkins said. No place is safe anywhere, any more.”
The Star’s Kevin Hoffmann and The Associated Press contributed to this report.To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-7743 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.To reach Kevin Murphy, call 816-234-4464 or send e-mail to email@example.com.