RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Seven people were shot, two fatally, when gunfire rang out Tuesday outside a downtown theater where a high school graduation ceremony had recently concluded, causing attendees to flee in panic, weep and clutch their children, authorities and witnesses reported.
A 19-year-old suspect tried to flee but was arrested and will be charged with two counts of second-degree murder, Interim Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards said in a nighttime news conference at which he confirmed the two fatalities.
Five others were wounded by the gunfire outside the Virginia capital’s Altria Theater and in an adjacent park. At least 12 others were injured or treated for anxiety due to the mayhem, according to police.
“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.”
Edwards said the two who died were both male, ages 18 and 36. Their names were not released, but police believe the suspect, who was not immediatedly identified, knew at least one of the victims.
Police recovered multiple handguns.
Police initially said two suspects were detained, but Edwards said later that one of them was determined to be uninvolved.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney vowed to ensure anyone responsible faces justice.
This should not be happening anywhere,” Stoney said.
Officers inside the theater, where the graduation ceremony for Huguenot High School was taking place, heard gunfire around 5:15 p.m. and radioed to police stationed outside, who found multiple victims, Edwards said.
School board member Jonathan Young told Richmond TV station WWBT that graduates and other attendees were exiting the building when they heard about 20 gunshots in rapid succession.
“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.
Two people were treated for falls; one juvenile was struck by a car and sustained injuries that were not life-threatening; and 9 people were treated at the scene for minor injuries or anxiety, according to police spokeswoman Tracy Walker.
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said the new graduates were outside taking photos with families and friends when the shooting broke out.
“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.”
As he heard the gunshots and then sirens, neighbor John Willard, 69, stepped onto the balcony of his 18th-floor apartment. Below, he saw students fleeing in their graduation outfits and parents hugging children.
“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.
Edythe Payne was helping her daughter sell flowers outside the theater to students as they left the ceremony. She told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the shooting caused a panic on nearby Main Street, which was packed with people 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 district said a different graduation scheduled for later Tuesday had been canceled “out of an abundance of caution” and schools would be closed Wednesday.