RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Seven people were shot dead, two of them dead, as gunfire rang outside a downtown theater just after a high school graduation ceremony Tuesday, sending hundreds of attendees into a panic. , crying, hugging the children and running away. Authorities and eyewitnesses said.
Richmond Police Interim Chief Rick Edwards said the 19-year-old suspect was arrested after attempting to flee on foot and charged with two counts of second-degree murder at a press conference the night he confirmed the two deaths. said.
Five others were injured in a shooting outside the state capital’s Municipal Altria Theater. The theater is across from a large grassy park, in the middle of the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. At least 12 people were injured or treated for anxiety in the unrest, police said.
“Obviously I was confused when I heard the gunshots,” Edwards said. “There were hundreds of people in Monroe Park and people were scattered. It was very chaotic.”
Edwards said one of the victims was an 18-year-old male student who had just graduated, while the other was a 36-year-old man who was at a graduation ceremony. His name has not been released, but police believe the suspect knows at least one of the victims, although no identities were immediately identified.
“This should have been a safe place. People should have felt safe at the graduation ceremony,” Edwards said.
“It is incredibly tragic that someone decided to bring a gun into this incident and rain terror on our community.”
Six people were taken to the VCU medical center late Tuesday with symptoms ranging from severe to critical, according to VCU medical system spokeswoman Mary-Kate Brogan.
Several handguns were recovered. Police initially said two suspects had been taken into custody, but Edwards later said he determined one of them was not involved.
Richmond Mayor Lever Stoney has vowed to ensure justice is served to those responsible.
“This shouldn’t happen anywhere,” Stoney said.
Edwards said police officers inside the theater where the Huguenot High School graduation ceremony was being held heard gunshots around 5:15 p.m. was discovered.
School board member Jonathan Young told Richmond television station WWBT that he heard about 20 gunshots in rapid succession as alumni and other attendees tried to exit the building.
“So, as you can imagine, hundreds of people who were trying to escape the shootings returned to the building,” Young said.
“It materialized as a rush,” he said.
Two people were treated for falls. A boy was hit by a car and sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Police spokesman Tracy Walker said nine people were treated at the scene for minor injuries and anxiety.
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamrath said fresh graduates were outside taking pictures with family and friends when the shooting occurred.
“I have nothing more to say about this,” Kamras said. “It’s disgusting to see people getting shot and kids getting shot. And I beg the whole community to stop, just stop.”
Neighbor John Willard, 69, stepped onto the balcony of his 18th-floor apartment when he heard gunshots and sirens. Below him were students fleeing in graduation attire and his parents hugging their children.
“There was a poor woman crying in front of the apartment complex next to ours,” Willard said, adding that the sight made her very sad.
Edith Payne helped her daughter sell flowers outside the theater to students returning from the ceremony. She told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that her shooting caused panic on a nearby Main Street, which was packed with people at the time.
“I felt very sick because an elderly person who was attending the graduation ceremony fell to the ground,” Payne said.
The school district announced that another graduation ceremony scheduled for late Tuesday was canceled “out of an abundance of caution” and schools will be closed Wednesday.
The mass shootings are the latest in a country accustomed to mass shootings and have raised calls for reform.
“The epidemic of gun violence is a public health crisis that we must address,” Democratic Rep. Jennifer McClellan, who represents Richmond, said in a statement. “We cannot continue to live in fear. We must address the root causes of gun violence and pass common sense gun safety policies that protect our communities.”
Republican Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earl Sears, an ardent gun rights advocate, said in remarks to news outlets near the scene that the problem was not the gun, but the criminal.
“We need to figure out what’s going on in our community,” she said.
___ Associated Press reporter Jonathan Drew of Raleigh, North Carolina and Beatrice Dupuis of New York contributed to this report.