Omaha's Darkest Hour - the Von Maur killings

I wrote this on December 6, still lingers in my mind and heart. On his television program on January 7, 2009, Dr. Phil interviewed the mother of the shooter, Robert Hawkins and one of the victims

Robert Hawkins needed help. But didn't get it. The result was a terrible day in Omaha and 8 people, Angie Schuster, Maggie Webb, Gary Joy, Janet Jorgensen, Gary Sharf, Dianne Trent, John McDonald and Beverly Flynn all fell victim to Robert Hawkins' deadly rampage on December 6, 2007.

Omaha, Nebraska, my home town, was suddenly the center of world-wide news. The kind of news that you don’t want to hear, the kind of news that you hope you'll never hear.
I live ½ mile from Westroads in the western edge of Omaha, NE and was Christmas shopping with a neighbor when I received a frantic telephone call from my husband…”where are you? Are you at Westroads?” “Someone was shot at Von Maurs”. At the time, I thought that this meant that one person had been shot. I was wrong.
Fear and panic had entered our lives. My first thought is “where are my children and my grandchildren?” "Please God, let them be all right!" "What is going on?" "Who is doing this?"
We could see the police helicopters circling the mall and hear the sounds of police and rescue sirens screaming down Dodge Street, the main thoroughfare passing the Westroads. Our telephone rang constantly, our daughter from Chicago, our friends from Georgia and California, everyone who knew that we lived in Omaha. They had seen the news on CNN and other news broadcasts and wanted to be sure that we were not involved. Later I had dozens of emails to answer…”Yes, we’re all okay”.
On December 6, 2007, shortly after 1:30 pm, a young man dressed in camouflage clothing and armed with an SKS assault rifle opened fire among holiday shoppers in Von Maurs, an Omaha department store at the Westroads Shopping Mall. Witnesses at the mall described the gunman as very tall, having a military-style haircut, wearing a camouflage vest and a black backpack and carrying a rifle. Police later recovered the rifle believed to have been used by the gunman.

The question remains, "how did he manage to bring a rifle into the shopping mall?" This was not a handgun which could be concealed in his pocket.....he was wearing a vest ....not a long overcoat which could have hidden the rifle. He had parked his vehicle in the parking lot and entered the mall....he looked around for a
few minutes and then went back to his car. This was recorded by security cameras.
A few minutes later he reappeared at the entrance to Von Maur Department store's main entrance. This time he was carrying a bundle wrapped in a black hoodie. Although this was seen and noted by security personnel, they didn't think anything was amiss.
After entering Von Maurs, he turned to the right and rode the elevator to the 2rd floor, the took the escalator up to 3rd, unwrapped his assault rifle and began firing.
Eight people were killed and at least five others were wounded. Two are in critical condition at a local hospital. This was Christmas shopping time, mothers and children plus hundreds of others were sent into terrified panic. What went through their minds..."where can I hide", "I've got to protect my children", "is this a terrorist attack", "please, please, somebody help me".
The festive sounds of holiday music playing throughout the Westroads Mall were suddenly punctuated by rapid gunfire and screams. The witnesses described the horrific scenes; multiple people gunned down in the store’s customer service department, others on a floor below, shot as they were looking up an escalator toward the chaos. It was believed that between 20 and 30 shots were fired.
The gunman came off a third-floor elevator and began firing shots into the ceiling. Once the shooting started, employees and customers rushed to hide wherever they could, in storerooms and other rooms off the shopping floor. Others had no chance, one man was shot as he stood looking around in bewilderment as frightened shoppers ran past him. Others in the customer service and gift wrap department were shot as they tried to run to the back of the store.
Police said the call of an active shooting at the mall first came in at 1:42 p.m., and within 6 minutes dozens of Omaha police, Douglas County sheriff's deputies, off duty officers, FBI agents and officers from area police departments responded and sealed off and closed the mall. The Omaha office of the FBI is less than a block from Von Maur, and the office of Homeland Security was also close. They were there in minutes to provide assistance to Omaha Police officers.
But, by that time, Robert Hawkins had already killed 8 people and wounded 5....and had killed himself.
"At 2:12 p.m., officers located the body of the shooter, Robert A. Hawkins. He had taken his own life".
Less than an hour before, the troubled teenage gunman had given a note to the family that he had been living with. In the note, which was turned over to authorities, Hawkins wrote that he was "sorry for everything" and would not be a burden on his family anymore.
More ominously, he wrote, "Now I'll be famous."
SOURCE: 12/7/07 Omaha World Herald
NOTE: Omaha Police Sgt. Jeff Baker was in the first group of officers at Westroads Mall. Although he can't describe certain details because of the police investigation, he offered this account:

In excess of 100 mph on the Interstate 680 en route to Westroads, time still seemed to crawl. A feeling of dread crept over me with every update given on the radio.

Shots being fired in the mall????

Upon arrival and armed with a shotgun, I entered Von Maur not knowing what I'd encounter. Twenty years in policing, 10 as a supervisor, didn't adequately prepare me for what I was about to see.

It was surreal...the smell of gunfire in the air, like the aroma of firecrackers you shot off as a kid. Shall casings on the marble floor. Mortally wounded gunshot victims.

People running past, crying. sheer terror on their faces. Others frozen and cowering under displays and in fitting rooms. Abandoned baby strollers, ladies' handbags, dropped cups of coffee and Christmas shopping bags littering the floor throughout the mall.

An alarm shrieking from overhead speakers, only partially drowning out Christmas music being played. And all the while, you're searching, guns at the ready, certain the bad guy is going to pop up from a clothing rack and kill one of you before your buddies can react and fight back.

It was surreal, like living out a horror movie. the mall swarmed with incoming officers from Omaha Police Department and other agencies.

I used the radio to warn responders that we might have a suspect on the loose with a high-powered rifle and that we had to lock down the mall. There's no time to sit and ponder options. You have to rely on your training and the officer next to you. so we broke into search elements to track down the suspect.

All the officers involved knew he had to be stopped and we were aware it was entirely possible that any one of us could be among those who would not go home to their families that night.

I experienced a wide array of emotions. Anxiety. Frustration. Sadness. Anger.

As the hours wore on and various personnel finished the task of clearing the mall and evacuating shoppers and employees, I felt exhaustion. Being at such a high state of alert for so long is taxing and I could see the emotional and physical drain on the faces of a number of police officers, federal agents and firefighters on the scene.

I got home about 9 p.m. roughly 13 hours after starting my shift. The first thing I did was hug my wife and tell her that I loved her. Then I prayed before managing about three hours of broken sleep.

Omaha shed its innocence, our own 9/11, and while this tragedy won't beat us as a city, I think Omahans will be forever changed by what happened.

It goes down as a dark day in our history, an abomination, the most senseless act of brutality I have ever seen.


Chelle B. said...

It's just horrible. I was reading about the links between anti-depressants and a lot of these mass murders, it is downright chilling!

My heart goes out to all the families who were affected, what a tragedy. :(

Chelle B.

The Offended Blogger

Charmay said...

This was a horrible tragedy. I am glad you and your family were all ok. My prayers go out to the families that were not as fortunate.

What a sad day!

Rug Master said...

What a sad tragedy in this holiday season. Prayers to the families of the innocent victims. Thanks for taking time to write about it.

Rug Master

Just Plain Jane said...

Terrible tragedy. Omaha is in our thoughts.


Skanky Jane said...

Ahhh - it's too tragic. Fame! What, it's not enough to be a loved/loving son or loved/loving father anymore? We get taught that we have to "be somebody" - but aren't we all "somebody" anyway? It's a grave sadness, the whole thing for everyone.

Anonymous said...

The hero, Gary Joy, is the cousin of the man with the highest rank in military history, General of the Armies, George Washington!

Anonymous said...

Gary Joy's only living immediate relative is James Joy. He has ancestry from New England.