Police move in from a parking lot to the Mall in Columbia after reports of a multiple shooting in Columbia, Md. on Jan. 25.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
The teenager who led a deadly January assault at The Mall in Columbia did not target his victims, but planned a killing spree inspired by the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, Howard County police revealed Wednesday.
In a wide-ranging news conference that provided new details about the crime, police said Darion Marcus Aguilar was torn between violent impulses and efforts to treat his psychiatric problems. For months before the Jan. 25 incident, the 19-year-old had been frequenting websites that promoted violence and researching mass shootings on the Internet. At the same time, he was looking up suicide-help websites as he acknowledged hearing voices in his head.
Although police said Aguilar was urged by a doctor to seek psychiatric help, the violent impulses took over.
"I going to [expletive] kill you all in a couple of hours," he wrote in his journal. "I'm anxious. I hate you all so much. You are pathetic pieces of [expletive] who deserve to die. Worthless. You are all [expletive] worthless."
He waited until 11:14 a.m. -- the precise time the Columbine shootings unfolded in Littleton, Colo. -- before coming out of a dressing room at a skateboard apparel store and fatally shooting two employees. After firing other shots that left a shopper wounded, he committed suicide.
The dichotomy of Aguilar's web searches, as well as his journal entries marked with apathy and anger, reinforce the need for a better understanding of mental illness, Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon said at a press briefing. Zumiez store employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25, died in the attack.
"Nobody saw this coming," McMahon said.
Aguilar didn't see a mental health professional and didn't appear to reach any of the mental health organizations he found online, McMahon added. Police don't believe he told his mother about his symptoms, either. The 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., have also raised national discussion about the evaluation and treatment of mental disorders and their link to mass killings.
"When kids are suffering from mental health issues, there seems to be a reluctance," McMahon said. "There's a stigma attached, which is also embarrassing that somehow parents have failed and I think that's the more critical question for society in general."
Computer and cell phone records were among evidence that convinced investigators that Aguilar had no connection with Johnson or Benlolo, who left behind a 2-year-old, disputing widespread speculation that he had known his victims, police said.
The new information provided little solace to the family of Johnson, who was from Ellicott City but had recently moved to Mount Airy. He had been sober for two years and was active in local 12-step programs, helping struggling addicts in recovery and looking forward to becoming a counselor.
"I don't know how you get closure when you lose a child," Johnson's aunt, Maggie Sliker, said Wednesday. "I don't think you get enough right answers."
She said details about Aguilar's mental health reflect a mental health system that's "full of holes" and said tragedies might be prevented with better treatment and evaluation. More must be done to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining guns, she said.
Benlolo family members could not be reached Wednesday.
Police said Aguilar fired off nine rounds before he put the pistol-grip Mossberg 500 to his mouth and pulled the trigger. Slung across his chest was a bandoleer with many more unused shells.
"We know more lives could've been lost," McMahon said. "He brought 54 rounds."
Even with all police have discovered, McMahon said, some questions will go unanswered, including why Aguilar chose to start at Zumiez or why he chose the mall, which many consider Columbia's "main street."
"How could something like this happen in Howard County?" the police chief asked, able to only speculate that Aguilar didn't choose a high school such as Columbine because he had already graduated.
Over the nearly 50 days since the shooting, police assigned between 12 and 30 detectives to the investigation. They conducted hundreds of interviews, read through personal journals, reviewed cell phone records, pieced together video surveillance and sifted through home computer drives and browsing histories. The ubiquity of surveillance video cameras at banks, restaurants, retail stores and the mall helped detectives piece together an almost minute-by-minute accounting of Aguilar on the day of the shooting, while police said his motivations for the attack could be traced back to early last year.
Up until then, he had been a thin, curly-haired teen who loved skateboarding and largely kept to himself. He was not a "bad kid," McMahon said. He hung around the mall, talking and smoking with friends, and occasionally was seen popping into Zumiez -- though police and an employee have said he didn't interact in any meaningful way with Benlolo or Johnson.
In January 2013, police said, a change came over Aguilar. He began researching school shootings, studying anarchy and viewing "violent" images online. In April, Aguilar confided to a general practitioner that he heard voices. McMahon described them as "non-specific, non-violent and really not directing him to do anything."
Police said the doctor recommended the teen see a mental health specialist, and he told investigators he followed up with Aguilar about the issues.
All signs point to Aguilar's failing to heed those instructions. Aguilar kept the issues to himself, writing in his journal that he was reluctant to tell his mother. The general physician told detectives he shared the information with Aguilar's mother, but she disputed that account and police said they have no evidence corroborating the doctor's story. McMahon did not name the physician.
At the College Park house where Aguilar lived with his mother at the time of the incident, no one answered the door Wednesday.
Johnson's aunt, Sliker, said she believes "the general practitioner did the best job he could given the limitations in place in our society. He did say he talked to the mother. She said she doesn't' remember that conversation. I'm sure in his follow-up he imparted the importance. ... Whether he did, we just have to take his word."
As Aguilar's computer research grew to include explosives, the teen also searched for mental illness information, including suicide help.
"It's difficult for us to tell if he took advantage of any of those sites," McMahon said.
In a span of a year before the shooting, Aguilar contemplated killing himself and wrote in his journal that he felt no emotion and was empty and sad. He acknowledged that he needed psychiatric help.
Police found evidence he downloaded a computer game simulating the two Columbine High School shooters, who committed suicide after they killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 24 others. It was unclear whether he played the game, the police chief said.
All Aguilar's research shifted into "action" Dec. 10 when he paid $430 for a pump-action shotgun that he told a gun shop owner would be used for home protection.
He passed a state-required background check and filled out a state purchase application that asked myriad questions, including whether he had been committed to a mental institution or if he had "ever been adjudicated mentally defective," which would include a court or another legal authority's determining that he was incompetent or a danger to himself or others. The application didn't ask whether he had been observed or treated for a mental illness.
Aguilar checked no, said Dan Millen, a co-owner of United Gun Shop of Rockville.
"If he said anything about seeing anything or about seeing anyone or about a doctor he would have been turned right around," Millen said Wednesday.
The teen came to the gun store alone, but when he returned days later to buy more ammunition, a friend accompanied him, police said. Investigators interviewed the friend and believe he had no knowledge of Aguilar's plan. He thought Aguilar bought the gun for target practice.
Aguilar bought more ammunition Dec. 28 at the Bass Pro outdoor shop in the Arundel Mills store.
On multiple days in January, Aguilar filmed himself taking apart the shotgun, which he outfitted with a pistol grip, a handle similar to at least one of the guns used in Columbine. The video showed his nimbleness taking it apart, which helped investigators understand how he sneaked the 28-inch weapon into the mall in a backpack, McMahon said.
He also videotaped himself making explosives out of fireworks and pellets and was seen on store surveillance Jan. 10 buying a common household cleaner police believe he may have wanted to turn into a bomb.
On Jan. 25, when he was supposed to open a Dunkin Donuts store, he left his College Park home at 5:15 a.m. and was seen on an ATM camera at a PNC Bank in Beltsville at 6:19 a.m.
He boarded a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority bus at 7:31 a.m. and ended up in Burtonsville, where the route ends. At 9:39 a.m., a McDonald's surveillance camera captured him alone at the restaurant. From there he took a cab and was dropped off at the mall alone. He was wearing a light-colored hoodie and gray jacket with a gray backpack, which police say held his disassembled shotgun and explosives. Aguilar walked into an upper-level entrance near the mall's carousel at 10:16 a.m. and moved toward Zumiez.
He didn't go in, but cameras show him riding an escalator down to the food court, where he waited about 43 minutes. At 11:01 a.m., he rode the escalator back upstairs and went into the Zumiez dressing room.
Inside, McMahon said, he changed into a white T-shirt. At 11:14 a.m., he uploaded a photo of himself in the dressing room with his shotgun around his shoulder to his Tumblr social media account along with a message:
"I had to do this," he wrote. "Today is the day. On previous days, I tried this, I woke up with anxiety, regret and hope for a better future. This day, I didn't. I woke up, felt no emotions or empathy, no sympathy. I will have freedom or maybe not. I could care less."
Police believe the photo, no longer publicly visible, was an image he wanted to be remembered by. McMahon said his department does not plan on releasing the image. "We're not going to honor that intention," he said.
A minute later, Aguilar began shooting, killing Benlolo with one shot and firing upon Johnson multiple times.
He fired two shots outside the store and wounded a 49-year-old Hanover woman in the heel before walking to an overhang and firing at the downstairs food court near the Great American Cookies store. He turned and fired again toward a Zumiez mannequin.
Aguilar then put the gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger, an act McMahon said mimicked a Columbine killer. The gray backpack full of explosives had been left in the dressing room, but did not detonate -- police said it needed an electric charge or lit fuse to activate it. Had it gone off, McMahon said, it could have wounded someone nearby but would not have caused mass injuries.
Aguilar fired nine shots and stopped, McMahon said. The police chief speculated that by that time, victims had run or hidden, leaving no targets.
"Why did he stop shooting?" McMahon asked. "He had more ammunition. The only person who can answer that is the shooter."
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