After dozens of people fled a Thanksgiving-evening shooting inside an Alabama shopping mall — stampeding through the food court and hiding inside stores — one woman told reporters she said a prayer as she ran: “Give the police wisdom and accuracy of shots.”
At first it seemed the prayer was answered. Police in Hoover, Ala., soon announced that they had secured the Riverchase Galleria and killed the gunman, who allegedly wounded two people during a dispute and then brandished a pistol at a uniformed officer.
Hoover’s mayor called the police heroes that night. “Thank God we had our officers very close,” Police Chief Nick Derzis told AL.com. “They heard the gunfire, they engaged the subject, and they took out the threat.”
By the next morning, the body of 21-year-old Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. was at the medical examiner; an 18-year-old man and a 12-year-old bystander were being treated for bullet wounds at a hospital; and Alabama’s largest shopping mall was back open for business for Black Friday crowds.
And then a reporter from television station WBRC, a Fox affiliate from Birmingham, posted a photo of a pistol on the floor of the Santa’s Village display — one of several things police apparently missed that night, including the actual shooter.
“New evidence now suggests that while Mr. Bradford may have been involved in some aspect of the altercation, he likely did not fire the rounds that injured the 18-year-old victim,” police said in a statement Friday night as they announced that the state would be taking over the investigation.
What police at first described as a fight between Bradford and the teenager that escalated to gunfire, during which a girl standing nearby was also shot, now appears to be something else.
More than two people were involved in the dispute, police say. They left unclear what role, if any, Bradford had in the incident, but police maintain that he threatened an officer with a handgun while fleeing.
“We regret that our initial media release was not totally accurate, but new evidence indicates that it was not,” police wrote. “This information indicates that there is at least one gunman still at-large.”
Neither a police spokesman nor officials with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency responded Saturday to questions about the search and investigation. Bradford’s family could not be reached, though some details of his life and final minutes have emerged online.
Bradford had photos of himself in Army uniform posted on Facebook, and he described himself as a combat engineer. A spokesman for the Army, however, told The Washington Post that he “never completed advanced individual training” and so did not serve. A lawyer from Bradford’s family said he had been honorably discharged from the Army.
He lived just outside Birmingham, a few miles from the mall where he was shot.
“He was a super sweet, funny, kind and good-hearted young man who never had a bad word to say to anyone,” his former Catholic high school teacher, Carl Dean, told the Hoover Sun.
About an hour before the shooting, Bradford posted a photo of himself on Facebook, showing him posing in a doorway in the shredded jeans and T-shirt in which he would die. Digital scribbles on the photo obscure his left hand, in which he appears to be holding something.
Gunshots rang out on the second floor of the mall shortly before 10 p.m., according to police and witness accounts. Cellphone videos show people fleeing through the food court, knocking over a cash register and cowering in employee backrooms.
An unidentified 18-year-old was shot and was last reported to be in serious condition at a hospital. A 12-year-old girl standing nearby was apparently struck by a stray bullet, her mother later wrote on Facebook. A military medic used a shirt from a rack at a nearby store to stop her bleeding. She is expected to recover.
In this chaos, AL.com reported, “several shoppers were seen with their guns drawn.”
It is unclear where Bradford was during the shooting. Two uniformed police officers working as security guards intercepted him in front of a shoe store on the second level, where a graphic photo spreading online shows him lying on the tile, blood pooled around his head.
“While moving toward the shooting scene, one of the officers encountered a suspect brandishing a pistol and shot him,” police wrote in their first public statement, immediately after the shooting. In their revised statement the following evening, they said Bradford was shot and killed while “fleeing the shooting scene while brandishing a handgun.”
In two graphic videos taken outside the shoe store, shoppers watch in astonishment.
“That boy didn’t shoot at nobody. He’s dead!” a man down the corridor says, as officers stand over Bradford and pin someone else to the ground. “They just killed that black boy for no reason. ... He probably got a gun license and everything.”
Bradford did have a license to carry a concealed gun, according to the civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who was hired by the family this weekend after previously representing black shooting victims such as Stephon Clark and Trayvon Martin.
Bradford is one of more than 850 people who have been shot and killed by police in the United States this year, according to a Washington Post database.