Police Chief on Columbia Mall Shooting: 'Nobody Saw This Coming'

Darion Aguilar was a 'loner' who researched violence online and did not seek help for mental health issues, police said.

Howard County Police Chief William McMahon (Credit: Screenshot from Fox 45)
Howard County Police Chief William McMahon (Credit: Screenshot from Fox 45)
Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said he hoped to provide some sense of closure Wednesday by releasing additional information about the Jan. 25 shootings that left three people dead at The Mall in Columbia.

"This investigation is still ongoing," McMahon said at a press conference at the Howard County Police Department's training center in Marriottsville.

Normally, police would not release this much information during an active case, but "...there will be no other venue to find out what happened," McMahon said, since the shooter killed himself.

At 11:15 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25, Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, of College Park, opened fire inside the Zumiez store on the Columbia mall's second level and killed store employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy, before shooting himself.

"There is no connection" between the shooter and his victims, McMahon said, and a motive has not been determined.

Shooter Had Mental Health Issues

McMahon said Aguilar went to a doctor in April for a medical condition and told the physician he was hearing voices. The doctor, who said the issues were "nonviolent," referred Aguilar to a psychiatrist. Police said there was no evidence that Aguilar ever pursued that referral; McMahon said the doctor followed up to find out.

According to police, the doctor got permission to speak to Aguilar's mother about following up with a psychiatrist, and the mother "does not have any recollection of that conversation with the doctor," McMahon said.

In Aguilar's journal entries, which totaled about 20 pages of writings, he "acknowledges he needs to see a psychiatrist and writes he is going to kill people," McMahon said.

Aguilar wrote in his journal that he was not comfortable talking with his mother about his issues, McMahon said. He lived with his mother and older sister in College Park and "secreted" his shotgun and ammunition so they would not find them, police said.

"Nobody saw this coming," McMahon said. "He was a young man that did not garner much attention to himself....He was kind of a loner."

The police chief said that Aguilar's "mom and dad were shocked by this," and "there was nobody he reached out to" besides the physician. People detectives approached in the investigation who had been identified as Aguilar's friends said they were not really close to him, but were friendly, McMahon noted.

Aguilar Used Internet to Research Violence

Detectives continue to search through evidence, including computer and phone records, although Aguilar downloaded a program to erase some of the contents the night before the shootings, McMahon said. Detectives are working to rebuild that, he said.

From what they can tell, police said that starting in 2013, Aguilar visited websites devoted to mass shootings at malls, and showed "a particular fascination with the Columbine shooting," which he researched until the day before he opened fire at the Columbia mall, McMahon said.

During the months leading up to the shootings in Columbia, Aguilar conducted internet research about gun laws, gun stores, explosive devices, gun apparel and ammunition, according to McMahon.

Aguilar also downloaded a video game in which players could pretend to be the Columbine shooter, according to McMahon.

"In the midst of all these sites that are very disturbing, very violent, he’s also visiting sites about mental health issues," McMahon said, such as those dedicated to suicide chat lines.

Aguilar Took Actions to Prepare for Shooting

In the fall and winter, Aguilar began to take actions that would lead up to the shooting, McMahon said.

He purchased ammunition and a sling, and purchased a shotgun in Rockville in early December, McMahon said. At the end of December, he purchased additional ammunition at the Bass Pro Shop in Arundel Mills.

He took photographs chronicling the results of his research, including pictures of his guns and ammunition, McMahon said.

Aguilar went to Home Depot in College Park on Jan. 10 and purchased a common cleaner that could be used in production of an explosive device, McMahon said.

"We have no indication that he ever made that explosive device," he added.

There was a device that McMahon said was in Aguilar's backpack in Zumiez, which would not have caused major damage—the most it could do, he said, would be to take off the person's fingers who was holding it.

The morning of the shootings, Aguilar took public transportation to the mall, where at 11:14 a.m., just before opening fire, he took a picture of himself and posted it on Tumblr with a message stating: "I had to do this. 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 no empathy no sympathy. I will have freedom or maybe not. I could care less."

In the photo, "he is dressed in cargo pants and boots, he has the shotgun and sling around him" and his bandolier with ammunition, McMahon said. "The way he's dressed reminds people of one of the shooters in the Columbine incident," he said.

One of two shooters involved in the Columbine High School massacre entered the Colorado school at 11:14 a.m. on April 20, 1999, according to The Washington Post.

"He may be trying to seek notoriety," McMahon said of Aguilar. "...we're not going to help him have that notoriety." As a result, police did not release the photograph.

Takeaway for Community: Talk about Mental Health

"At the end of the day, this is about a tragedy for those families," County Executive Ken Ulman said of the victims' relatives, who chose not to attend the press conference.

Police encouraged the community to talk about mental health issues and use resources that are available.

McMahon mentioned there is a crisis intervention team that is part of the Howard County Police Department, but that as a society, people need to become more comfortable discussing these issues.

Said McMahon: "There's a lot left to do on the mental health front."

Jessica March 13, 2014 at 01:30 PM
@sir: parents aren't responsible for their teenagers? I honestly don't blame anyone but the jackass who shot up the mall. All I'm saying is if you're looking for someone ALIVE to blame, it's most definitely his mother's fault for raising an a$$hole.
Sir March 13, 2014 at 03:45 PM
@jessica. A very broad statement.
MG42 March 13, 2014 at 05:03 PM
He had a fascination with Columbine. He probably liked how "Columbia" had a very similar name (just swapping the "ne" for an "a").
wendy morone March 21, 2014 at 09:43 AM
Jessica, If parents have tried every way know to get help for an overage child and the child refuses, bolts, etc. then the parents and family are powerless! Lawyers, laws, and police have tied the hands of parents! It is very difficult if not impossible to get help or have a mentally ill person overage committed or treated except for a few reasons and even then for a tiny amount of time. Some call it civil rights. I call it dangerous and very sad. You have no idea what parents might have gone through! Don't judge!!!!


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