9 killed as man goes on shooting spree in Omaha mall

20-year-old gunman fires down on shoppers from a third-floor balcony of the Von Maur store before taking his own life.

Nebraska shooting 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nebraska shooting 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Less than an hour before he killed eight victims and himself in a mall shooting spree, the gunman called a woman who had taken him in to tell her about a suicide note - but she said Thursday she never thought he would hurt anyone but himself. Debora Maruca-Kovac told CBS's "The Early Show" she found the note after Robert A. Hawkins, 19, called to thank her and her family for their help, to express his love, and to tell her he had left the note behind. "He had said how much he loved his family and all his friends and how he was sorry he was a burden to everybody and his whole life he was a piece of (expletive) and now he'll be famous," she said, describing the note. "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." Hawkins carried out his shooting spree from the third floor of the Westroads Mall, the bullets from his rifle cutting through the sound of Christmas music as he terrorized shoppers and employees. Hawkins had recently split with his girlfriend and been fired from McDonald's. He had a criminal record and had left or been kicked out of his parents' house. Police Chief Thomas Warren said the shooting appeared to be random and that the dead included five females and four males, including the gunman. Warren told CNN Thursday that police plan to examine text messages sent between Hawkins and his girlfriend, as well his computer's hard drive for any Internet communications that could explain how he plotted the shootings. Warren would not release the victims' identities Wednesday night and gave no motive for the attack, but promised more details in a news conference scheduled for Thursday morning. Hawkins moved from his family's home about a year ago. Maruca-Kovac and her husband, whose sons were friends with Hawkins, welcomed him into their home and tried to help him. "When he first came in the house, he was introverted, a troubled young man who was like a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted," Maruca-Kovac told The Associated Press. She told the Omaha World-Herald that the night before the shooting, Hawkins and her sons showed her an SKS semiautomatic Russian military rifle - the same type used in the shooting. She said she thought the gun belonged to a member of Hawkins' family. She said she didn't think much of it - the gun looked too old to work. 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. Maruca-Kovac said Hawkins had recently broken up with a girlfriend and was fired from McDonald's. She told the World-Herald that Hawkins said he had been fired after being accused of stealing $17 from his till at the restaurant. McDonald's management declined to comment to the newspaper. Maruca-Kovac said he phoned her at about 1 p.m. Wednesday, telling her he had left a note. She tried to get him to explain. "He said, 'It's too late,'" and hung up, she told CNN. She then called Hawkins' mother. 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." Maruca-Kovac went to her job as a nurse at the Nebraska Medical Center, where victims of the shooting soon began to arrive. The first 911 call came in at 1:42 p.m., and the shooting was already over when police arrived six minutes later, authorities said. "We sent every available officer in the city of Omaha," Sgt. Teresa Negron said. "They came to the mall in lights and sirens." The World-Herald reported that the gunman had a military-style haircut and a black backpack, and wore a camouflage vest. Hawkins opened fire in a Von Maur store, part of a Midwestern chain. Mickey Vickory, 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. Keith Fidler, another Von Maur employee, said he heard a burst of five to six shots followed by 15 to 20 more rounds. Fidler said he huddled in the corner of the men's clothing department with about a dozen other employees until police yelled to get out of the store. 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." Nebraska Medical Center spokeswoman Andrea McMaster said the hospital had three victims from the mall shooting, including Fred Wilson, 61, who was in critical condition early Thursday with a bullet wound to his chest. Another critically wounded victim was at Creighton University Medical Center, spokeswoman Lisa Stites said. On Wednesday night, police used a bomb robot to access a Jeep Cherokee left in the mall parking lot that authorities believe belonged to Hawkins. Officers had seen some wires under some clothing, but no bomb was found. President Bush was in Omaha on Wednesday for a fundraiser, but left about an hour before the shooting. "Having just visited with so many members of the community in Omaha today, the president is confident that they will pull together to comfort one another," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. 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. The shooting spree was Nebraska's deadliest since January 1958, when Charles Starkweather killed 10 people in Nebraska and another in Wyoming.