By A.J. Metcalf
Columbia, a city inspired by community and a dream, experienced a nightmare Saturday morning.
The shooting of two skate shop employees by a man identified by police as Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, brought the attention of the country to the city over the weekend.
As police scrambled for details about how someone could gun down a 21-year-old mother of one and a 25-year-old Mount Airy man, a speculative narrative emerged that it was perhaps the result of a soured relationship.
However, police continuously denied they had confirmed any link between the shooter and the victims.
On Sunday night, Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon admonished some in the media, saying reports purporting to know a motive in the killings are frustrating to the victims’ families.
“We have no known relationship between the victims and our shooter,” said McMahon. “There’s still speculation that there was some romantic involvement in this. We have not been able to establish this.”
Police say Aguilar, of College Park, fired between six to nine shots in the shooting, which killed Brianna Benlolo, 21, a young mother from College Park, and Tyler Johnson, 25, a Centennial High School graduate whom police said had recently moved from Ellicott City to Mount Airy. Both Johnson and Benlolo were employees of Zumiez, the second-floor skate shop where police said the shooting centered.
Inside the store police found a bag with “crude” homemade explosives made from fireworks. Near Aguilar’s body they recovered a .12-gauge Mossberg shotgun, which police reported he bought legally in December in Montgomery County. Police said Aguilar died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Classmates and a family member described Aguilar as a quiet, nice kid, according to multiple media reports. Police said he had no criminal record.
In a search of Aguilar’s home on Hollywood Road in College Park, McMahon said police found a journal in which Aguilar “expressed some general unhappiness with his life.”
In an interview with WNEW, Aguilar's mother said her son was never interested in guns.
“I don’t know what happened, I really don’t; it’s so unusual," she told the radio station. "You can talk to any of his friends and find out how gentle he was.”
Classmates of Aguilar at James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County described him to the Baltimore Sun as a nice kid who wasn’t outgoing, but not a loner.
Johnson’s aunt read a statement from his parents on WBAL, saying the parents were devastated by the events. The aunt said Johnson's parents believe he had nothing more than a working relationship with Benlolo, according to the report.
Benlolo’s grandfather, John Feins, told the Associated Press that the Zumiez job was Benlolo’s first since giving birth to a son two years ago.
Police were first called to the mall at 11:15 a.m. on Saturday and responded within two minutes, according to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.
After the shots rang out, shoppers in the busy mall fled for exits or sheltered in place inside kitchens, back rooms of stores and behind gated shops. Police said it took hours to clear the large mall of people.
The mall is scheduled to reopen at 1 p.m. on Monday and will have two memorial locations, one near the outside entrance by Sears and another in center court near Lord and Taylor, according to Ulman.
The shooting has left an indelible mark on the mall, said Ulman, who thanked law enforcement for their swift response and the community for its outpouring of compassion in response to the tragic events. He said he will be at the mall on Monday when it reopens.
“We may never quite be back to 100 percent but we are a resilient community that will be back shopping and eating at the Columbia Mall tomorrow,” Ulman said.
How the shooting will define the city itself, known for its affluence and its founding in the 1960s by developer James Rouse as a planned suburban community infused with neighborly values, has yet to be determined.
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