Gunfire erupted outside a downtown theater on Tuesday after a high school graduation ceremony, sending hundreds of attendees fleeing in fear, weeping, and clutching their kids, according to cops and witnesses. Seven people were shot, two of them fatally.
At a late-night press conference where he announced the two fatalities, Interim Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards said a suspect, 19, tried to flee on foot but was apprehended and would be charged with two counts of second-degree murder.
The Altria Theater, a city-owned structure located in the heart of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus and across the street from a big grassy park, sustained five further injuries as a result of the gunshots outside the state capitol. Police report that at least 12 additional people were hurt or sought treatment for anxiety as a result of the chaos.
“As they heard the gunfire, it was obviously chaos,” Edwards said. “We had hundreds of people in Monroe Park, so people scattered. It was very chaotic at the scene.”
According to Edwards, one of the victims was a graduate student who was 18 years old, while the other victim was a graduate attendee who was 36 years old. Although the police withheld their names, they believe that at least one of the victims knew the perpetrator, who was not immediately named.
“This should have been a safe space. People should have felt safe at a graduation,” Edwards said.
“It’s just incredibly tragic that someone decided to bring a gun to this incident and rain terror on our community.”
Late on Tuesday, six persons were taken to VCU Medical Center with symptoms ranging from critical to serious, according to Mary Kate Brogan, a spokeswoman for the VCU Health System.
There were several handguns discovered. Police initially reported detaining two individuals, but Edwards subsequently claimed they found only one to be innocent.
Levar Stoney, the mayor of Richmond, committed to see that anyone guilty is brought to justice.
“This should not be happening anywhere,” Stoney said.
Around 5:15 p.m., police inside the theater—where Huguenot High School’s graduation ceremony had been held—heard gunfire and radioed to officers outside, where they discovered numerous victims, according to Edwards.
A graduate and several attendees were exiting the building when they heard about 20 gunshots fired quickly apart, according to school board member Jonathan Young, who spoke to Richmond TV station WWBT.
“That prompted, as you would expect, hundreds of persons in an effort to flee the gunfire to return to the building,” Young said.
“It materialized in a stampede,” he said.
According to police spokeswoman Tracy Walker, nine people were treated on the spot for minor wounds or anxiety, while two people were treated for falls, one child was hit by a car and had injuries that were not life-threatening, and one adult was also treated for falls.
Jason Kamras, the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, claimed that the recent grads were taking pictures outside with their families and friends when the shooting started.
“I don’t have any more words on this,” Kamras said. “I’m just tired of seeing people get shot, our kids get shot. And I beg of the entire community to stop, to just stop.”
Neighbor John Willard, 69, came out onto his apartment’s balcony as he heard gunfire followed by sirens. He witnessed graduates running away below and parents hugging their kids.
“There was one poor woman in front of the apartment block next to ours who was wailing and crying,” Willard said, adding that the scene left him deeply saddened.
As the kids departed the ceremony, Edythe Payne assisted her daughter in selling flowers to them outside the auditorium. The shooting, she claimed to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “caused a panic on nearby Main Street, which was crowded at the time.”
“I felt bad because some elderly people were at the graduation and they got knocked down to the ground,” Payne said.
The school system announced that a different graduation that was set to take place later on Tuesday had been postponed “out of an abundance of caution” and that Wednesday would be a holiday.
The most recent mass shooting in a country that is becoming accustomed to them sparked cries for reform.
“The gun violence epidemic is a public health crisis that we must address,” U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat whose district includes 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 Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears, a fervent supporter of gun rights, told local news outlets that criminals are the real problem, not weapons.
“We have to figure out what’s going on in our communities,” she said.
Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Beatrice Dupuy in New York, both of the Associated Press, contributed to this story.