Halloween shooting spooks students

No arrests have been made in the botched robbery that led to gunfire in Lot 4 early Saturday morning, leaving one victim hospitalized at Helene Fuld Medical Center in Trenton.

The victim, who was not a student, was shot twice in the leg by a 9 mm handgun at approximately 12:30 a.m., Campus Police said. According to police at the scene Saturday morning, the suspects fled immediately after the shots were fired.

Police and school officials said the shooting, which involved seven males in their early 20s, will not result in any immediate security changes on campus.

“We feel this is an isolated incident,” Campus Police Chief John Collins said Monday. “We continually review the tactics that we use and make adjustments as we feel necessary.”

According to police, none of the people involved in the incident were students. Security officer searches of the residence halls turned up no results and Collins did not believe the suspects presented “a persistent threat” to the campus community Saturday morning.

The unidentified shooting victim and three companions were trying to attend a Halloween party sponsored by the National Association of Black Accountants and United Flo held in Brower Student Center, but were turned away by police because they did not have valid College identification. Police could not confirm whether the shooter and two others tried to enter the party.

Tim Asher, director of Student Activities and Leadership Development, said students are only granted access to “social space events” held in the student center if they have a valid ID from the College or another school, or if their names are on a 50-person guest list for non-student guests.

Administrative Sgt. Michael Bell said police at the Halloween party were checking IDs at the entrances to the student center. In the past, police would check guests with a “wand,” or portable metal detector, to see if they were carrying any weapons.

Collins said the victims told State Police detectives they were leaning against their car around 12:30 a.m. on Nov. 1 when three unidentified males approached them, produced a handgun and demanded the victims “empty their pockets.” The shooting victim, who according to police did not think the threats were serious, refused to surrender his possessions.

That’s when things turned violent, according to police.

The shooter fired a round in the air and shot the victim twice in the leg. At least one of the robbery victims then handed over undisclosed property or money to the attackers.

Police recovered three shell casings at the scene, consistent with bullets from a 9 mm handgun. One witness said he heard a fourth shot from the direction of the suspects’ car as they fled the scene, but Collins said a fourth round was never recovered. A combined search by Ewing and Campus Police for stray bullets in Lot 6 came back negative.

While the shooting took place around 12:30 a.m., the College’s emergency text messaging system did not go into effect until after 2 a.m. At 2:26 a.m., students received a text that read, “A shooting has been reported on TCNJs campus. See TCNJ e-mail for more detail. Stay in a safe place.”

According to police, nobody at the NABA/United Flo event in the student center reported hearing a gunshot, and the victim and his companions did not call 911 or police until after they arrived at Fuld Medical. A call was then made to the Trenton Police Department, which relayed information about the incident to Ewing and Campus police.

Matthew Golden, executive director of Public Relations and Communications, said the victim’s decision not to call police immediately caused the delay. Golden was first notified of the incident around 2 a.m., activating the text message alert system within the half hour.

Campus Police spearheaded the investigation Saturday morning with assistance from New Jersey State Police crime scene detectives and a shooting response task force comprising officials from both the State Police and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

Collins also discounted rumors about possible gang involvement in Saturday’s shooting.

“We can’t rule it out, but we do not believe it’s gang-motivated,” Collins said. “Nobody targeted anybody because of any (gang) affiliation.”

A police report regarding the shooting was not immediately available, as the incident is still under investigation. Fingerprint and other tests relating to forensic evidence were also unavailable for release as of press time.

Long-Term Security Changes

While police and officials do not plan any immediate security additions in light of the shooting, the unnerving episode may push administrators to reconsider some policies.

“Whenever we have an incident, whether it’s something like this or something that doesn’t rise to this level we have to review what we’re doing from both a communications standpoint and a security standpoint,” Golden said. “The decisions haven’t been made yet but the dialogue is certainly happening.”

Several students have called for the addition of security cameras to Lot 6 in light of the parking thefts that have occurred there this semester. Collins said there is no connection between the Lot 6 thefts and the Lot 4 shooting. He also expressed doubt about the effectiveness of installing swipe access gates to exit the parking decks.

“I’m not sure that’s a wise policy,” Collins said. “We’d have to look at the safety concerns. If the parking lot needed to be evacuated, it could cause a problem. We’re looking at all available options.”

Golden also had concerns about the addition of gates.

“If someone is intent on entering the parking lot and committing a robbery in that lot or stealing a vehicle, a gate isn’t sufficient in and of itself to accomplish what our goal is,” Golden said.

Reaction

Several concerned parents have contacted the school to ask what will be done to address the situation. College President R. Barbara Gitenstein released a written statement hours after the incident to try to assuage community fears.

“A senseless act of violence occurred on our campus early this morning, and, though it does not appear to have involved any TCNJ students, it certainly has raised anxiety for members of our campus and extended communities,” Gitenstein said. “I would like to commend TCNJ Police for their outstanding work in responding to this incident, and I want to remind all that we have absolutely no greater priority than providing for the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff, as well as registered guests visiting our campus.”

Golden said Monday he has received about 10 to 15 calls from worried parents since Saturday.

“I’m sure I’ll be speaking to many more in the coming days. This is a very unnerving incident,” Golden said. “It’s an example of violence that exists in our culture nationally and regionally. It’s something that’s upsetting to us as an institution and as administrators, and we certainly understand that parents would be particularly unnerved by something like this. Students and their safety are the number one priority for (the College).”

Students didn’t seem troubled while roaming the student center and Lot 4 Monday afternoon, standing just feet away from the spot where bullets flew Saturday morning.

“It’s shocking to hear, but I still consider myself safe,” Shawn De Los Angeles, senior physics major, said.

One student praised police for their swift response, changing his opinion after regularly criticizing Campus Police.

“I think law enforcement did a pretty decent job handling this,” Devon Nelson, senior international studies major, said. “In the past I’ve been known to say police are too worried about who is parking where, but I’m glad they made their presence known. I felt like there was a level of security where nothing was going to happen to you.”

Arts & Entertainment Editor Joseph Hannan contributed to this report.

James Queally can be reached at queally2@tcnj.edu.