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Maryland Mall shooting sees Briana Benlolo and fiance shot dead in murder-suicide

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  • Briana Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25, were shot by a gunman while working at Zumiez at the Mall in Columbia
  • It was Benlolo's first job since she gave birth to her son, two
  • The gunman emerged from a dressing room and began shooting, killing Benlolo and Johnson and injuring others
  • He then turned the gun on himself
  • Police called in the bomb squad to disarm the man, who was armed with crude explosive devices
  • Police say they have tentatively identified the gunman but have not released his name

By Associated Press and Helen Pow

PUBLISHED: 09:00 EST, 26 January 2014 | UPDATED: 09:04 EST, 26 January 2014

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A gunman who shot dead a young mother and her fiance in the middle of a suburban Maryland shopping mall Saturday was reportedly the woman's jaded ex-boyfriend and was carrying a bag full of explosives.

Briana Benlolo, 21, of College Park, and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Ellicot City were killed just before 11:15 a.m. Saturday at the Zumiez skate shop that Benlolo managed, on the upper level of the Mall in Columbia.

The gunman, who hasn't been named, then turned the weapon on himself. Police said the bomb squad was called in to disable crude attempts at explosive devices that were found in a bag carried by the shooter.

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Tyler Johnson
Brianna Benlolo

Domestic dispute: Multiple reports are saying Tyler Johnson (left) and Briana Benlolo (right) were shot dead by a spurned former lover of Benlolo's

Shot dead: Benlolo was a doting mother to a two-year-old boy

Shot dead: Benlolo was a doting mother to a two-year-old boy

Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon said authorities had difficulty identifying the gunman because of concerns he was carrying explosives and were proceeding with an 'abundance of caution.'

By late Saturday, police said they had tentatively identified him but declined to release his name while they followed up on leads. He is expected to be identified at a news conference scheduled for 9:30 a.m. ET.

'We do not know yet what caused the shooting incident,' he said. 'We do not have a motive.'

The mall will remain closed Sunday. Police used dogs to search the mall overnight, which is standard procedure.

On her Facebook page, Benlolo, who has a two year old son, identitifies herself as the assistant manager of the store. Police confirmed Johnson also worked at the same Zumiez.

'The Zumiez team is a tight knit community and all of our hearts go out to Brianna and Tyler's families,' CEO Rick Brooks said in a statement.

The shooting is believed to have been the climax of a domestic dispute between Benlolo, her boyfriend and an ex-boyfriend who fired the shots, WBAL reported.

Briana Benlolo
Tyler Johnson

Silent and deadly: Witnesses say no words were exchanged between the victims and the shooter before shots were fired

A Zumiez employee named Chris told WBAL radio that the gunman came out from inside a dressing room and aimed a single-barrel shotgun at the girl behind the counter and 'dropped her.'

'I hit the ground, I heard the other shot to the white male employee,' Chris recalled, saying he began crawling on his hands and knees in a scramble towards the exit.

'I scrambled past his body, got outside the store... heard two more shots and yelled ’shooter call the police!' he said, adding that not a single word was exchanged between the gunman and his victims.

'The first two were more like booming bangs,' Jan Ring told WNEW. 'And then the other two were definitely clearer shots.

'We saw a couple dead bodies,' she added, beginning to cry. 'One person was shot in the head laying there dead.'

Lock down: An officer is seen outside a mall in Columbia, Maryland, where three people died in this picture provided by David Anderson

Lock down: An officer is seen outside a mall in Columbia, Maryland, where three people died in this picture provided by David Anderson

Benlolo's grandfather, John Feins, said in a telephone interview from Florida that his granddaughter had a two-year-old son and that the job at Zumiez was her first since she went back to work after her son's birth.

'She was all excited because she was the manager there,' he said.

He said he had spoken with his daughter, Brianna's mother, earlier in the day, but didn't know who the gunman was or whether the person knew his granddaughter.

'It's senseless. It's totally, totally senseless,' he said.

He described his daughter's family as a military family that had moved frequently and had been in Colorado before moving to Maryland about two years ago. He said his granddaughter was on good terms with her son's father, and they shared custody.

'I mean what can you say? You go to work and make a dollar and you got some idiot coming in and blowing people away,' he said.

Locked down: Emergency responders closed the mall as they searched for additional shooters

Locked down: Emergency responders closed the mall as they searched for additional shooters

Unthinkable: Police enter a Sears store at the Columbia Mall after Saturday's shooting

Unthinkable: Police enter a Sears store at the Columbia Mall after Saturday's shooting

Zumiez CEO Rick Brooks released a statement that the company is making counseling available for employees in the area.

'The Zumiez team is a tight knit community and all of our hearts go out to Brianna and Tyler's families,' he wrote.

Howard County General Hospital said it had treated and released five patients. One patient had a gunshot wound, while at least three other patients sustained other injuries.

The mall is at the center of the town that's a suburb of both Baltimore and Washington, and it typically opens at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. It was busy with shoppers and employees when the shots rang out before noon.

Joan Harding of Elkridge, Maryland, was shopping with her husband, David, for a tiara for their granddaughter's 18th birthday. She said she heard something heavy falling, followed by gunshots and people running.

'My husband said, "Get down!" and the girl that worked in the store said, "Get in the back,"' Harding said. That is where they hid until police searched the mall and signaled it was safe to leave.

Evacuated: A woman waits in the lobby of the AMC Movie Theater at the Columbia Mall, the scene of a shooting, at the mall in Columbia, Maryland

Evacuated: A woman waits in the lobby of the AMC Movie Theater at the Columbia Mall, the scene of a shooting, at the mall in Columbia, Maryland

The mall was closed to the public as police looked in each store for people who might still be hiding, McMahon said.

He said officers did not fire any shots when they arrived at the scene. Asked if the gunman shot himself, the chief answered: 'That is certainly what it appears to be at this point.'

Tonya Broughton of Silver Spring, Maryland, was with a friend getting facials for a 'girls' morning out,' she said. 'The only thing I heard was all the people running and screaming and saying "There's a shooter! There's a shooter!"' she said.

Wearing a gel face mask, she and her friend hid in a Victoria's Secret store.

People were directed out of the mall and into a parking lot, where some boarded a bus and others walked toward their cars. Some people were seen crying. McMahon said detectives were interviewing witnesses as they emerged from the mall.

Laura McKindles of Columbia works at a kiosk in the mall. She said she heard between eight and 10 gunshots, followed by people running and screaming. She ran into the backroom of a perfume store and locked the door.

Authorities found another shooting victim with a gunshot wound to the foot later in the afternoon, they announced.

Where it happened: The shooting took place in a Zumiez skate shop similar to the one pictured here

Where it happened: The shooting took place in a Zumiez skate shop similar to the one pictured here

In a hurry: A mother and daughter quickly leave the mall to safety

In a hurry: A mother and daughter quickly leave the mall to safety

On the move: Police walk from a parking lot to the Mall in Columbia

On the move: Police walk from a parking lot to the Mall in Columbia

Air ambulance: A Maryland State Police medivac flies over the Mall in Columbia after the shooting

Air ambulance: A Maryland State Police medivac flies over the Mall in Columbia after the shooting

Frazzled: Distraught shoppers walk past police SWAT vehicles as they leave the mall following the shooting

Frazzled: Distraught shoppers walk past police SWAT vehicles as they leave the mall following the shooting

Petrified: Mall employee Lauren Stapleton said she 'turned around and saw bodies fall... it was horrific'

Petrified: Mall employee Lauren Stapleton said she 'turned around and saw bodies fall... it was horrific'

Mall employee Lauren Stapleton detailed her terrifying morning in the food court to WBAL.

'It sounded like a brick fell to the floor, I heard somebody yell shots fired and I turned around and watched bodies fall,' she said,

'I grabbed a kid and the mother… I ran while the shots were still being fired, it was horrific.

'It was pretty chaotic, everyone was running and screaming... I was scared,' she continued between tears before noting she works in a children's hair salon.

The salon was sheltering children as young as two months old: 'One of them started freaking out and screaming and crying, we held him and told him it was okay' until SWAT kicked down the door and herded everyone out.

Another told WBAL that she thought the first gun shot was something falling, by the second and third she knew there was a shooter.

'What I was thinking was, we need to keep everybody safe,' she said, 'we were able to get the gates down and get everybody in the back.

'Everyone was scared, it was pretty chaotic at the time... people were running by the store, people ducking down on the floor.'

She, another employee and about 10 customers all gathered in the back of the store until SWAT rescued them: 'I was scared, everyone there was scared,' she said.

Chief McMahon said during the press conference that police had previously drilled for such situations in the past and credited mall employees for knowing exactly what to do.

Shots fired: Pellets from the shotgun recovered at the scene peppered a wall inside the mall

Shots fired: Pellets from the shotgun recovered at the scene peppered a wall inside the mall

Many agencies: Baltimore Police in SWAT gear enter the Sears department store, State police and FBI agents also responded to the shooting scene

Many agencies: Baltimore Police in SWAT gear enter the Sears department store, State police and FBI agents also responded to the shooting scene

In charge: Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon speaks to reporters during an early afternoon briefing

In charge: Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon speaks to reporters during an early afternoon briefing

Safe and sound: Evacuated shoppers gather on a sidewalk outside after being evacuated from the mall

Safe and sound: Evacuated shoppers gather on a sidewalk outside after being evacuated from the mall

Ready to go: SWAT police gather in the staging area set up outside the mall

Ready to go: SWAT police gather in the staging area set up outside the mall

On guard: Police block the entrance to the Sears after the mall was locked done

On guard: Police block the entrance to the Sears after the mall was locked done

Another young girl told WBAL that she thought the gunshot sounds were tiles falling off the roof.

'I heard... a boom sound, then I went and checked and heard it again: boom, boom boom,' another eyewitness named Colin told CNN.

He initially thought the booms were from construction in the area.

'Everybody was running [and] screaming, kids were running around,' Colin recalled, adding that he and his fellow employees ran to the back of the store.

Another witness also told NBC Washington she thought the gun shots sounded like 'something being dropped.'

Relieved: Two people embrace in the parking lot at The Mall in Columbia after making it safely out of the building

Relieved: Two people embrace in the parking lot at The Mall in Columbia after making it safely out of the building

Disbelief: People exiting the mall look to be in a state of shock over what happened

Disbelief: People exiting the mall look to be in a state of shock over what happened

Out of hiding: Police and fire personnel escort shoppers out of the Columbia Mall after a gunman killed three people

Out of hiding: Police and fire personnel escort shoppers out of the Columbia Mall after a gunman killed three people

Moving in: A SWAT officer runs through the mall parking lot

Moving in: A SWAT officer runs through the mall parking lot

Emergency response: Firefighters and EMS outside the scene of the deadly shooting

Emergency response: Firefighters and EMS outside the scene of the deadly shooting

Highly trained: Maryland State Police gear up as civilians depart the Columbia Mall after the fatal shooting

Highly trained: Maryland State Police gear up as civilians depart the Columbia Mall after the fatal shooting

She ran for cover as 'they just kept shooting and it didn't stop.'

A man told NBC Washington that his daughter and dozens of others ran frantically out of the mall to take shelter in a Bank of America.

‘People were panicking,’ he said she told him.

A mall employee named KT told CNN that people ran frantically to huddle in storage rooms, the backs of stores, bathrooms and anywhere they could take cover.

KT saw 'kids crying and mothers holding them, shaking and crying,' he said.

WBAL reported that eyewitnesses to the shooting were being instructed to go to the mall's movie theater while shoppers not involved were sent home.

Authorities asked people in the two-story mall to remain in place as they scoured the mall for possible additional shooters.

The mall issued a vague statement addressing the issue.

‘Mall is closed. Believe that the situation may be over, but the mall is closed.’

The 200 store mall will not reopen until at least Sunday, police said.

Braintrust: Officers from local, state and federal agencies including the ATF gather to form a plan to get evryone out safe

Braintrust: Officers from local, state and federal agencies including the ATF gather to form a plan to get evryone out safe

Evacuation: Busses were brought in to keep evacuated employees warm until they were permitted to go to their vehicles

Evacuation: Busses were brought in to keep evacuated employees warm until they were permitted to go to their vehicles

Staging area: Police and fire officials gather in the parking lot to plan

Staging area: Police and fire officials gather in the parking lot to plan

Rachel Hunter, a mall employee, detailed the horrifying morning on Twitter.

'This might be the craziest thing I've ever been a part of,' she wrote. 'I wanna go home.

'I'm shaking... my heart is pounding.'

She also wrote that she was locked in the stock room of her store waiting for SWAT to give the all clear.

Another mall employee saw SWAT slowly creeping through the mall searching for additional suspects.

'Cops still circling the mall w/ guns out. Cops told us just to stay in the store. Likely to be here for a while,' tweeted another employee.

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