A federal hate crime investigation is underway after a White gunman with a swastika-emblazoned assault rifle killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday, authorities said.
The shooting, described as being racially motivated, claimed the lives of Angela Michelle Carr, 52, Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19, and Jerrald Gallion, 29.
The gunman, identified as 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmeter, left behind racist writings and used racial slurs, Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said. He was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and a handgun, both legally purchased, and targeted Black people as he opened fire inside the store, according to the sheriff.
The Justice Department is now investigating the shooting as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Sunday.
As a hurting community gathered Sunday to honor the victims, Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan called to an end to division.
“The division has to stop, the hate has to stop, the rhetoric has to stop,” She added, “We are all the same flesh, blood and bones and we should treat each other that way.”
The attack in Florida is the latest in a number of shootings in recent years where a gunman has targeted Black people, including at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, last year and a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
It also marked one of several shootings reported in the US over two days, including one near a parade in Massachusetts and another at a high school football game in Oklahoma.
There have been at least 475 mass shootings in the US so far in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which, like CNN, defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are wounded or killed, not including the shooter.
As investigators probe the Jacksonville gunman’s motives and history, Waters cautioned against trying to find reason in the attack.
“Our community is grappling to understand why this atrocity occurred. I urge us all not to look for sense in a senseless act of violence,” the sheriff said. “There’s no reason or explanation that will ever account for the shooter’s decisions and actions.”
While Jacksonville grieves those killed, here’s what we know about how the shooting unfolded Saturday, the guns used in the attack, the victims and the ongoing investigation:
The shooter, who lived with his parents in Orange Park in Clay County, left his home around 11:39 a.m. and headed to Jacksonville in neighboring Duval County, Waters told CNN Saturday.
At 12:48 p.m., the suspect stopped at Edward Waters University in New Town, a predominately Black area of Jacksonville, where the sheriff said the suspect put on a bulletproof vest. A TikTok video captured him getting dressed, Waters said.
A student flagged down campus security when they saw the shooter because he “looked out of place,” President and CEO of Edward Waters University, Dr. A. Zachary Faison Jr. told CNN Sunday.
The man immediately got in his vehicle and started to drive away after being confronted by a security officer, who followed him until he left campus, Faison said.
“We don’t know obviously what his full intentions were, but we do know that he came here right before going to the Dollar General,” Faison said. “Members of our university security team reacted almost immediately. I think the reports are in less than 30 seconds after he made contact and drove onto our campus.”
Faison said the campus security actions alone probably saved “dozens of lives.”
“It’s not by happenstance, we believe, that he came to the first historically Black university in this state, first,” Faison said.
University police followed him out of the lot around 12:58 p.m. and flagged down a sheriff’s officer, saying there was a suspicious person on campus, according to the sheriff.
At 1:08 p.m., the gunman shot into a black Kia at the nearby Dollar General parking lot and killed Carr, the sheriff said. He then entered the store and fatally shot Laguerre, the sheriff said.
Others fled out the back exit of the store followed by the suspect seconds later, the sheriff said. He then came back inside and shot at security cameras.
The first 911 call went out at 1:09 p.m., seconds before the third victim, Gallion, walked into the store with his girlfriend.
The gunman then fatally shot Gallion and chased after another person, whom he shot at but didn’t hit, the sheriff said.
At 1:18 p.m., the gunman texted his father and told him to go into his room, where the father found a will and a suicide note, the sheriff said.
Officers entered the store a minute later – 11 minutes from the start of the shooting – and heard one gunshot, which is presumed to be when the gunman shot and killed himself, the sheriff said.
The suspect’s family members called the Clay County Sheriff’s Office at 1:53 p.m., the sheriff said.
Authorities on Sunday played two short video clips of the shooting.
One clip shows the shooter, wearing a tactical vest and blue latex gloves, pointing his weapon at a black Kia car outside the store, and the other shows the shooter walking into the store and pointing his rifle to his right.
“I wanted the people to be able to see exactly what happened in this situation and just how sickening it is,” Waters said.
The shooter did not appear to know the victims and it is believed he acted alone, he said.
“He targeted a certain group of people and that’s Black people,” Waters said at a Saturday news conference. That’s what he said he wanted to kill. And that’s very clear… Any member of that race at that time was in danger.”
The suspect had left behind writings to his parents, the media and federal agents outlining his “disgusting ideology of hate,” the sheriff told reporters Saturday.
Photos of two weapons the gunman had were released by authorities, including one firearm with swastikas drawn on it.
The shooter had no criminal arrest history, and it appears he legally purchased the two firearms earlier this year, the sheriff said.
The shooter was the subject of a 2017 law enforcement call under the state’s Baker Act, which allows people to be involuntarily detained and subject to an examination for up to 72 hours during a mental health crisis.
Waters did not provide details on what led to the Baker Act call in that case but said normally a person who has been detained under the act is not eligible to purchase firearms.
“If there is a Baker Act situation, they’re prohibited from getting guns,” he told CNN Saturday. “We don’t know if that Baker Act was recorded properly, whether it was considered a full Baker Act.”
On Sunday, the sheriff said investigators found the guns appeared to be obtained legally.
“There was no flag that could have come up to stop him from purchasing those guns,” Waters said at a Sunday news conference. “As a matter of fact, it looks as if he purchased those guns completely legally.”
“There was nothing indicating that he should not own guns,” he added.
The sheriff did not provide further details on the Baker Act petition from 2017, but said Sunday it does appear that the shooter, who was 15 at the time, was held for 72 hours and then released.
A relative of the 29-year-old Gallion who was attending Sunday evening’s vigil in honor of the victims described him as a fun, loving young man.
Sabrina Rozier told CNN that the family is holding up the best that they can and that they have yet to tell Gallion’s 4-year-old daughter that her father is gone.
“It’s hurtful, I thought racism was behind us and evidently it’s not,” Gallion said
Dollar General identified one of the victims, Laguerre, as an employee of the store in a statement to CNN Sunday evening.
“The DG family mourns the loss of our colleague Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre, Jr., who, along with two of our customers, were the victims of senseless violence yesterday. We extend our deepest sympathies to their families and friends as we all try to comprehend this tragedy. There is no place for hate at Dollar General or in the communities we serve,” the company said.
Jacksonville is processing the loss, said Florida State Sen. Tracie Davis, who represents the area of Jacksonville where the shooting happened.
“I’m angry, I’m sad to realize we are in 2023 and as a Black person we are still hunted, because that’s what that was,” Davis told CNN. “That was someone planning and executing three people.”
The attack coincided with the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, the iconic civil rights demonstration that called on the government to better protect the rights of Black people.
“[T]his day of remembrance and commemoration ended with yet another American community wounded by an act of gun violence, reportedly fueled by hate-filled animus and carried out with two firearms,” Biden said in a written statement.
“Even as we continue searching for answers, we must say clearly and forcefully that white supremacy has no place in America,” the president added. “We must refuse to live in a country where Black families going to the store or Black students going to school live in fear of being gunned down because of the color of their skin.”
Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday called on Congress to ban assault weapons and pass common sense gun safety legislation.
“America is experiencing an epidemic of hate. Too many communities have been torn apart by hatred and violent extremism,” Harris said. “Too many families have lost children, parents, and grandparents. Too many Black Americans live every day with the fear that they will be victims of hate-fueled gun violence—at school, at work, at their place of worship, at the grocery store.”