Moments after gunfire erupted at busy Northlake Mall on Christmas Eve, eight people huddled in the back room of the Anthropologie store while a frightened woman spoke with a 911 operator.
“Yes, there’s about 10 of us stuck in the back here,” the woman told the dispatcher, her voice shaking. “There’s shots going off continuously.”
In newly released recordings of 911 calls, the dispatcher asked the woman whether anyone was injured, and for instructions on how officers could find them. But she was interrupted when the woman thought she heard gunshots.
“Is that a gun?” the woman yelled. “Is that a gun?”
The dispatcher tried to reassure her. “Every officer in the city that’s not already there is coming there, lights and sirens.”
Northlake was jammed with last-minute holiday shoppers Dec. 24 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.
Patrons dived under tables in the food court or barricaded themselves in bathrooms. Police from across the city sped to the scene, fearing an officer had been shot or that an active shooter was firing on shoppers. The shooting happened less than a month after mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Colorado Springs, Colo.
911 calls relay panic from inside
Police-radio traffic and 911 recordings obtained by the Observer reflect terror felt by mall shoppers. The recordings also help characterize the gridlock and chaos as officers tried to secure the scene and evacuate a mall filled on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
“I just received a text from my daughter at the Apple store at Northlake Mall that she is barricaded in the manager’s office at the back of the store, and there’s a report of shots fired,” one man told a 911 dispatcher. “I don’t know how many people are in there. All I know is she sent me a panicked text telling me how much she loved me and that she’s trapped in the manager’s office.”
Such recordings, which are public records, are often released within days of an incident. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police attorney Judy Emken said it took the department nearly two months to release some of the recordings because they had to redact the identities of the victim and witnesses and also remove information that is not public.
Police have not said how many shots were fired or whether more than two people fired guns. They also haven’t described the nature of the fight that led to the shootings.
Police say off-duty Officer Thomas Ferguson fatally shot Daquan Antonio Westbrook, 18, after Westbrook pointed a gun at the officer. It’s unclear whether Westbrook fired his weapon. Paramedics told WSOC-TV that another person was treated for a gunshot wound to the leg. Police have not identified another victim or said how that person was injured.
The department hasn’t released the results of its criminal or internal investigations into the shooting, although Ferguson has returned to active duty.
Witnesses say hundreds of panicked bystanders screamed and shoved to get away from the area after the shooting. About the same time, an officer at the mall screamed 10-33 into his microphone, a police radio code that signifies an officer is in trouble and needs help.
Responding to his call, officers from across the county sped to the mall. Dispatchers also sent paramedics.
Minutes went by before an officer provided some clarity about what was happening.
“Let me get on the channel,” the officer says. “Listen up, headquarters, we’ve got one shot. Suspect is down. Suspect has been shot. No police injury.”
Dealing with mall exodus
After being notified that the shooting had stopped, most police officers across the city stopped converging on Northlake Mall and returned to their divisions. Officers in the North Division, which includes the mall, now had to contend with thousands of people trying to leave the mall at the same time.
“We’re going to need more units on scene reference clearing this mall out, please,” one officer said on the police radio.
Several 911 calls poured in, including from people concerned about loved ones in the mall.
“My daughters who are 13 and 18 just called me from Northlake Mall, and they said there’s a shooting there and they’re hiding in a bathroom,” one woman told a dispatcher. “Have they apprehended the man? Is it safe for them to leave the bathroom?”
Officers debated whether to close parking lots to look for any shooters who might still be on the loose. Meanwhile, inside the mall, a crowd had gathered around the crime scene. Complicating matters, Westbrook’s family showed up.
At one point, a supervisor comes on the radio, trying to settle officers.
“I want to confirm the shooting has stopped,” he says. “We have one shooter down. We’re just trying (to do) crowd control and crime scene. Is that 10-4 (affirmative)?”
“OK, everybody calm down,” the supervisor asks. “Tend to whatever they need. Take control of the scene. We have units en route, and we also have all the proper resources heading that way. Relax.”