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Mourners light candles for Omaha mall victims

Mourners lit eight red candles and five blue ones Thursday for each of those killed or injured one day earlier in Omaha, Neb., after a troubled young man opened fire in a department store before taking his own life.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Mourners lit eight red candles and five blue ones Thursday for each of those killed or injured one day earlier after a troubled young man opened fire in a department store before taking his own life.

The ceremony was held at St. John’s Church on Creighton University’s campus, where The Rev. Roc O’Connor read the names of the victims aloud, KETV-TV reported.

"We can see the light in the midst of darkness. We can encounter hope in the midst of despair," the Rev. Andy Alexander said.

At least three of those killed and injured were Creighton alumni and had developed deep roots in the area.

"This is something that is going to hit home for everyone who lives here," mourner Robyn Eden told KETV-TV. "Small community — regardless of how many people live here. This is a small town."

President Bush offered sympathy Thursday to the families of the victims.

“I was in Omaha just before the shooting took place, and I know what a difficult day it is for that fine community,” said Bush, who had traveled to the area to attend a Republican fundraiser and was on his way back to Washington when the shootings took place.

“The victims and their loved ones are in the prayers of Americans,” Bush said. “The federal government stands ready to help in any way we can, and the whole nation grieves for the people of Omaha.”

Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey also expressed shock and sadness at the Westroads Mall shooting at a news conference Thursday.

“Today, we are still reeling form the events that few have ever imagined would take place in Omaha,” he said. “We will not accept this evil act to occur in our community.”

Victims remembered
Police identified the eight murder victims Thursday morning after notifying families. The victims ranged in age from 24 to 66, and were both employees and customers.

The customers killed were Gary Scharf, 48 of Lincoln and John McDonald, 65, of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The employees killed were Angie Schuster, 36, of Omaha; Maggie Webb, 24; Janet Jorgensen, 66 of Omaha; Diane Trent, 53 of Omaha; Gary Joy, 56 of Omaha; and Beverly Flynn, 47, of Omaha, police said.

Scharf’s ex-wife described him as loyal and honorable.

“I called him my Dudley-do-right,” Kim Scharf said, “I’m sure he got in front of other people” and took a bullet that might have hit someone else. “There’s no doubt in my mind, I promise you. That’s who he is, to a fault.”

Trent, a store employee, spent warm evenings tending to the flowers on her porch, drinking tea and chatting with her neighbor, Errol Schlenker.

“A very incredibly sweet person,” Schlenker said. “She was a middle-of-the-road American, a dedicated worker. She was just a decent person who lived a good life here.”

More details revealed
Police also released more details about the attack Thursday, saying the gunman may have smuggled the assault rifle into the mall underneath clothing.

Image: Robert Hawkins

Police Chief Thomas Warren said the young man “appeared to be concealing something balled up in a hooded sweat shirt” he was carrying, according to a surveillance video.

Police believe Hawkins stole the assault rifle, an AK-47, from his stepfather’s home, Warren said.

The teen entered the store Wednesday using an elevator, and moments later, gunfire pierced through the notes of Christmas music at the Westroads Mall’s Von Maur department store. People huddled in dressing rooms and barricaded themselves in offices as 19-year-old Robert A. Hawkins sprayed the floor with bullets.

Six store employees and two customers were killed. When the shooting was over, Hawkins shot himself.

The mall was closed Thursday as authorities continued to investigate what may have motivated the teen to go on the shooting spree. The shooting spree was Nebraska’s deadliest since January 1958, when Charles Starkweather killed 10 people in Nebraska and another in Wyoming.

Troubling, puzzling rampage
Hawkins was described by many as having a troubled past. He recently split with his girlfriend and been fired from McDonald’s. He also had a criminal record and had left or been kicked out of his parents’ house.

But the rampage was as troubling as it was puzzling for those who knew him.

“He was depressed, and he had always been depressed. But he looked like he was getting better,” said Debora Maruca-Kovac, a surgical nurse whose family took in Hawkins after her 17- and 19-year-old sons befriended him. “He didn’t cause a lot of trouble. He tried to help out all the time. He was very thankful for everything. He wasn’t a violent person at all.”

The Associated Press’ attempts to reach Hawkins’ biological parents on Thursday were unsuccessful. A man who answered at a phone number listed for Hawkins’ father, Ronald Hawkins, said it was a wrong number. Nobody answered the door at the home of Maribel Rodriguez of Bellevue on Thursday. Court records list her as Hawkins’ mother.

“As far as foster kids go, he was pretty normal,” said Ben Glass, 31, the son of Hawkins’ former foster mother Mary Glass. Hawkins lived with the family for about a year. “He was actually one of the easier ones to get along with.”

'Now I'll be famous'
Hawkins dropped out of Papillion-La Vista High School as a senior in March 2006, principal James Glover said Thursday. While he wasn’t a loner, he had a very small group of friends and was not involved in extracurricular activities, Glover said.

Maruca-Kovac is seen outside of her home in Bellevue
Debora Maruca-Kovac is seen outside her home in Bellevue, Nebraska December 5, 2007. Maruca was Robert Hawkins' caretaker. A 19-year-old gunman, identified by authorities as Hawkins, killed eight people and then himself with a rifle at a busy mall sending terrified workers and Christmas shoppers scrambling for cover. REUTERS/Jill Peitzmeier/Lincoln Journal Star (UNITED STATES). EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO ARCHIVES. NO SALES.Jill Peitzmeier / city

“It was never a situation where he was out of the loop because people were picking on him,” Glover said.

About an hour before the shooting, Hawkins called her and told her he had written a suicide note, Maruca-Kovac said. In the note, which was turned over to authorities, Hawkins wrote that he was “sorry for everything” and would not be a burden on his family anymore. More ominously, he wrote, “Now I’ll be famous.”

“I was fearful that he was going to try to commit suicide but I had no idea that he would involve so many other families,” she told CBS’ “The Early Show,” Thursday.

Records in Sarpy and Washington counties showed Hawkins had a felony drug conviction and several misdemeanor cases filed against him, including an arrest 11 days before the shooting for having alcohol as a minor. He was due in court in two weeks.

'We saw the blood'
When the shots began, the store descended into chaos.

Mickey Vickroy, who worked in the store’s third-floor service department, said she heard shots and went with coworkers and customers into a back closet, emerging about a half-hour later when police shouted to come out with their hands up. As police led them to another part of the mall for safety, they saw the victims.

“We saw the bodies and we saw the blood,” she said.

Witness Shawn Vidlak said the shots sounded like a nail gun. At first he thought it was noise from construction work at the mall.

“People started screaming about gunshots,” Vidlak said. “I grabbed my wife and kids. We got out of there as fast as we could.”

Omaha attorney Jeff Schaffart, 34, was shopping with his wife and, after fleeing, realized he had been hit by two bullets, one in the upper arm and another grazing his left pinkie finger.

While hiding in a restroom, Schaffart said, he used his necktie as a tourniquet for his arm wound and put napkins on his finger to stop the bleeding. He was later treated and released at a hospital.

The sprawling, three-level mall has more than 135 stores and restaurants. It gets 14.5 million visitors every year, according to its Web site.

It was the second mass shooting at a mall this year. In February, nine people were shot, five of them fatally, at Trolley Square mall in Salt Lake City. The gunman, 18-year-old Sulejman Talovic, was shot and killed by police.