An 18-year-old graduate, Shawn Jackson, and his 36-year-old stepfather, Renzo Smith, were killed in a shooting after a high school commencement ceremony in Richmond, Virginia, Tuesday evening that left five others injured, police said Wednesday.
A suspect, 19-year-old Amari Pollard, was arraigned Wednesday morning on two counts of second-degree murder and is being held without bail, interim Police Chief Rick Edwards said at a news conference. Pollard had an ongoing dispute with the 18-year-old victim and it was a targeted attack, Edwards said. Further charges are pending, he added.
He has not yet hired an attorney and is due back in court June 21, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin.
A 9-year-old girl who was struck and injured by a car in the chaos that followed the shooting is also related to the family of the two people who were killed. She is currently recovering from very minor injuries, Edwards said. The remaining victims are all in non-life-threatening condition, he said.
The gunman opened fire in Monroe Park, where hundreds of graduates and guests had gathered across the street from the Altria Theater, where Huguenot High School held the ceremony.
“I didn’t know Shawn, but I shook his hand and wished him congratulations about 20 minutes before he died,” Jason Kamras, the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, said Wednesday. “I can’t shake the image of him receiving CPR on the ground, still in his graduation gown.”
The shooting is one of at least 279 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are shot, excluding the shooter.
The violence added Richmond to a long list of communities across the country to grapple with the terror of mass shootings in recent months, including those at a mall in Texas, a school in Tennessee, a bank in Kentucky and near a beach in South Florida.
“This should have been a safe space,” Edwards said Tuesday night. “It’s just incredibly tragic that someone decided to bring a gun to this incident and rain terror on our community.”
The shooting happened just before 5:15 p.m., when three off-duty officers who were working security at the ceremony heard gunshots and reported them on their radios, and officers working traffic duty nearby responded, Edwards said.
“The initial officers indicated there was a barrage of gunfire, but it was over quickly,” he added.
The suspect fled on foot and was found and detained nearby by security officers with nearby Virginia Commonwealth University, Edwards said. Monroe Park is part of VCU’s Monroe Park campus.
Police initially announced they had detained two people but later said one of them was not involved in the gunfire.
It’s not clear how many weapons were involved in the shooting.
Police seized four handguns from the scene, Edwards said Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, he said the suspect had one gun, but others were recovered from the scene.
“I think there was an interaction, and then it appears that the suspect went to his car to retrieve the gun and then returned,” he told reporters.
“He would not have been able to purchase a handgun himself, due to his age,” he added in response to a reporter’s question.
A big smile and a love for music
Jackson and Smith were described Wednesday by a family member as hard workers who had hearts of gold.
Datrell Glover, an aunt of Jackson and Smith’s sister-in-law, said at a news conference, “Something that was so special and supposed to be a happy moment for all of us ended as a tragedy.”
While Glover wasn’t at the graduation ceremony, she said a lot of family who were there will be seeking counseling following the incident.
“When he walked off that stage, nothing but smiles, he had no idea that his life was going to end that day,” Glover told reporters.
Jackson loved music, specifically rap, and wanted to pursue a career as a music producer, Glover said. When they had family gatherings, she said, Jackson would always designate himself as the DJ.
Both victims were described as loving men who were all about their family. “My nephew had a smile that could light up a whole room,” Glover added.
Glover saw Smith the night before the shooting and they were talking about an upcoming cruise, she said. “If I knew that he was going to be gone I would’ve hugged him a little longer,” she said.
Smith and his wife met when he was stationed near Richmond during his time in the Army, Glover said.
The injured 9-year-old, who Glover identified as Jackson’s sister, is doing OK and will be able to walk again, she said.
‘Is nothing sacred any longer?’
Turmoil followed the shooting, Edwards said.
“I heard the call come over my radio, and you can hear the chaos and the screaming,” he said.
“People were having panic attacks, falling on the ground screaming,” Edwards added. “Some people fell. One child was hit by a car.”
Jonathan Young, a member of the Richmond City School Board, described the chaos immediately after shots were fired in video posted by CNN affiliate WWBT.
“We were exiting the building when we heard about 20 gunshots in rapid succession,” Young said. “The truth is that we as a people are tolerating the intolerable.”
Naomi Wade was outside the Altria Theater selling flowers and teddy bears for the graduates, she told CNN affiliate WTVR. Images of smiling graduates in caps and gowns turned to scenes of panic as gunshots were heard, she said.
“Everyone literally started running for their lives, trampling each other. Trampled me. Trampled our whole entire stand. It was scary,” Wade said.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney decried the shooting Tuesday and promised whoever was involved would be brought to justice.
“Is nothing sacred any longer?” Stoney said at a news conference.
“This should not be happening anywhere,” Stoney said. “A child should be able to go to their graduation and walk at their graduation and enjoy the accomplishment with their friends and families.”
Kamras, the superintendent, noted that Jackson was not the only student from the Richmond Public Schools district shot within the past 24 hours.
“Last night, three Armstrong students were wounded in two different incidents. This just needs to stop,” he said.
He called on state and federal officials for support in addressing the violence.
Huguenot High’s ceremony was the second Richmond high school commencement to happen Tuesday at the theater, and a third graduation ceremony scheduled there that day was canceled after the shooting, school officials said. Richmond Public Schools is closing all its schools Wednesday out of an abundance of caution, the system announced on its website.
The rest of this week’s high school graduations in the district also have been canceled.
“We’ve been preparing for an event like this. We’ve prepared for it with our partners and hoping that this day wouldn’t come,” Edwards said. “But it came to Richmond.”
CNN’s Sara Smart, Steve Almasy, Jamiel Lynch, Sharif Paget and Aaron Eggleston contributed to this report.