Christmas Eve descended into chaos Thursday when shots were fired between two groups at a north Charlotte mall and a responding off-duty police officer shot and killed one of the alleged gunmen.
Northlake Mall was jammed with last-minute holiday shoppers when an argument broke out between two groups involved in an ongoing dispute. At least two of the people involved pulled guns and opened fire, on the mall’s lower level near Dick’s Sporting Goods, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said.
Witnesses say hundreds of panicked bystanders screamed and shoved to get away from the area. Others dove under tables at the nearby food court.
Police working at the mall responded. CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said witnesses told police that when off-duty officer Thomas Ferguson reached the scene, one of the gunmen turned and pointed his weapon at Ferguson.
The officer fired his service weapon, Putney said. Daquan Antonio Westbrook, 18, was pronounced dead at the scene. At an evening news conference, Putney said police did not know if the teenager fired any shots at the officer.
Records indicate Westbrook had a lengthy criminal record involving guns, drugs and violence.
Per CMPD policy, Ferguson, a 19-year veteran of the force, has been placed under paid, administrative leave, Putney said.
A chaotic scene
The gunfire – some witnesses reported hearing up to 10 shots – sent shoppers scrambling and shoving down mall walkways and running up escalators before they streamed into the parking lot. Some hid behind dumpsters. Others waited for up to 30 minutes as gates to some of the stores came down and blocked their departures. The movie theater was placed on lockdown.
W.T. Harris Boulevard, the heavily traveled main gateway to the mall, became a quagmire as hundreds of cars tried to leave the mall, just as dozens of police cars were barreling to the scene.
Motorists who made it out of the parking lot found ramps to Interstate 77 closed. Dozens of other shoppers left the area on foot or watched from the periphery as police cars, fire trucks and ambulances cordoned off the mall. Still others sat in their cars and tried to compose themselves before driving off.
“I need a cigarette, and I don’t smoke,” said Natasha Columbus of Charlotte, who was shopping about 20 feet from the shooting and initially thought the mall was under terrorist attack.
Witnesses said the gunfire started outside of Journeys, a shoe store on the lower level of the mall near Dick’s.
Zindy Cruz, 19, was in the food court with her brother and father when they heard shots being fired. They ducked under their table until things calmed down.
From the second floor, they could see into Journeys, where she said she saw a man lying on the floor who appeared dead.
Co-workers Nicole Kirkpatrick and Columbus were in the Locker Room Sporting Goods store on the lower level of the mall near Journeys when shots rang out.
“Pow, pow, pow, pow,” eight or nine in all, Kirkpatrick said.
Columbus said she bolted to the back of the store. Kirkpatrick went to the front, toward the sound of gunfire, and craned to see.
Fifteen to 20 feet away, she said, she saw a body.
In the same store, Lisa Sawyer Phillips, 46, and her oldest son, 26, were looking for Carolina Panthers T-shirts when they heard the shots. Customers ran to the back of the store, where workers escorted them through a back door that leads to a hallway, Phillips said.
They waited there for 30 minutes before they were able to evacuate the mall, she said.
“That was probably the scariest part, not knowing how many people were actually shooting,” Phillips said.
“Usually, I’m calm and collected and can handle things,” she said. But as the sound of gunshots hit the air, “I really broke down.”
Caryl Santos, a 20-year-old sophomore at East Carolina University, said she was standing in the checkout line at Belk when suddenly people began running toward the exit. “I had no idea what to do, so I grabbed my mom, dropped my stuff and ran out of the store,” she said.
The scene was chaotic, she said: People ran to their cars. Some hid behind dumpsters.
Justin Biddle, 19, and his girlfriend Chyna Williams, 17, were at the mall for some last-minute shopping for her mother. They had gotten off the escalator in Macy’s and headed for Victoria’s Secret when dozens of shoppers – “too many to count,” Chyna said – thundered toward them.
They ran with the crowd, they said, asking questions as they went.
Shots had been fired, they were told, and someone had been hit.
By the time they reached the parking lot, the first of dozens of squealing police cars were taking over the mall.
Minutes later, they stood in a light rain, holding hands, waiting for their ride, feeling lucky they hadn’t reached the mall any earlier.
“We feel blessed that we weren’t shot,” Biddle said. But he said the couple felt bad for anyone who had been hurt and their families.
Westbrook’s short life featured a long list of criminal charges – from larceny and drugs to assaults and firearms. In 2014, he was charged with shooting a 12-year-old in northeast Charlotte. His most recent arrests took place in October, and were related to drugs, larceny and resisting arrest.
Staying at home
Northlake Mall, which opened in September 2005, is a 1.1-million square foot enclosed regional shopping center on the northwest corner of I- 77 and W.T. Harris Boulevard. In 2014, original owner Taubman Center Inc. sold the mall to Starwood Capital Group.
In 2009, Northlake launched a curfew requiring adult supervision for anyone under age 18 on Fridays and Saturdays after 5 p.m.
In 2012, a man was arrested and charged in connection with a shooting outside of the Dick’s and Dillard’s at Northlake.
Ninety minutes after Thursday’s shooting, shopper Natasha Columbus said she still was shaken over what she heard. She doesn’t like public places to begin with. Her experience at Northlake had changed her holiday plans.
“I’m staying in the house,” she said.
April Bethea, Jane Wester, Hayley Fowler, Théoden Janes, Maria David and Celeste Smith contributed.