A federal hate crime investigation is underway after a white gunman with a swastika-decorated assault rifle killed three black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Fla. on Saturday, authorities said.
The shooting, described as racially motivated, claimed the lives of Angela Michelle Carr, 52, Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19, and Jerrald Gallion, 29.
The shooter, identified as 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmer, left racist writing and used racial slurs, Jacksonville Sheriff TK Waters said. According to the sheriff, he was armed with an AR-15 rifle and handgun, both legally purchased, and was aiming at black people when he opened fire inside the store.
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 suffering community gathered to honor the victims on Sunday, Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan called for an end to the division.
“The division has to stop, the hate has to stop, the rhetoric has to stop,” she added. “We are all flesh, blood and bone and should treat one another as such.”
The Florida attack is the latest in a string of shootings in recent years in which a gunman targeted Black people, including at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York last year and in 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina .
It was also one of several shootings reported across the United States over a two-day period, including one near a parade in Massachusetts and another at a high school football game in Oklahoma.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, which like CNN defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are injured or killed, not including the shooter, there have been at least 475 mass shootings in the US so far in 2023.
As investigators probe the Jacksonville gunman’s motives and history, Waters cautioned against trying to find a reason for the attack.
“Our community is struggling to understand why this atrocity happened. I urge all of us not to seek meaning in a senseless act of violence,” the sheriff said. “There is no reason or explanation that could ever explain the shooter’s decisions and actions.”
As Jacksonville mourns those killed, here’s what we know about the course of Saturday’s shooting, the weapons used in the attack, the casualties and the ongoing investigation:
The shooter, who lived with his parents in Orange Park, Clay County, left his home around 11:39 a.m. and made his way to Jacksonville, in neighboring Duval County, Waters told CNN on Saturday.
At 12:48 p.m., the suspect pulled up at Edward Waters University in New Town, a predominantly black neighborhood of Jacksonville, where the sheriff said the suspect was wearing a bulletproof vest. A TikTok video filmed him getting dressed, Waters said.
When they saw the shooter, a student reported to campus security because he “looked out of place,” Dr. A. Zachary Faison Jr., President and CEO of Edward Waters University, told CNN on Sunday.
The man immediately got into his vehicle and drove off after being confronted by a security guard, who followed him until he left the campus, Faison said.
“We obviously don’t know what his exact intentions were, but we do know that he came here just before he went to Dollar General,” Faison said. “Members of our university security team responded almost immediately. I believe the reports are in less than 30 seconds after he made contact and drove to our campus.”
Faison said campus security alone likely “saved dozens of lives.”
“We don’t think it’s an accident that he came first to the first historically black university in this state,” Faison said.
University police followed him from the parking lot at about 12:58 p.m. and called a sheriff’s officer. According to the sheriff, a suspicious person was on campus.
At 1:08 p.m. the gunman fired in The sheriff said he hit a Kia in the nearby Dollar General lot and killed Carr. He then entered the store and fatally shot Laguerre, the sheriff said.
Others fled the store’s back exit, followed by the suspect seconds later, the sheriff said. Then he came back inside and shot at security cameras.
The first emergency call went out at 1:09 p.m., seconds before the third victim, Gallion, entered the store with his girlfriend.
The gunman then fatally shot Gallion, chasing after another person whom he shot but did not hit, the sheriff said.
At 1:18 p.m., the gunman texted his father, telling him to go to his room, where the father found a will and a suicide note, the sheriff said.
A minute later — 11 minutes into the shooting — officers entered the store and heard a gunshot, which is believed to have resulted from the gunman shooting 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 played two short video clips of the shooting on Sunday.
One clip shows the shooter, wearing a tactical vest and blue latex gloves, aiming his gun at a black Kia car in front of the store, and the other shows the shooter entering the store and aiming his rifle to the right.
“I wanted people to be able to see exactly what happened in this situation and how disgusting it is,” Waters said.
The shooter appeared unaware of the victims and is believed to have acted alone, he said.
“He targeted a specific group of people, and they’re black people,” Waters said at a news conference Saturday. That’s what he said he wanted to kill. And that is very clear… Every member of this race was in danger at that time.”
The suspect left letters to his parents, the media and federal agents outlining his “disgusting ideology of hate,” the sheriff told reporters Saturday.
Authorities released photos of two weapons that the shooter possessed, including a firearm with swastikas on it.
The shooter had no prior arrest record and appears to have legally acquired the two firearms earlier this year, the sheriff said.
The shooter was the subject of a law enforcement appeal in 2017 under the state’s Baker Act, which allows people to be involuntarily detained and investigated for up to 72 hours during a mental health crisis.
Waters did not specify what led to the Baker Act in this case, but said a person imprisoned under the act was not normally authorized to purchase firearms.
“If there’s a Baker Act situation, they’re forbidden from getting guns,” he told CNN on Saturday. “We do not know if this Baker Act was properly recorded and if it was considered the full Baker Act.”
On Sunday, the sheriff said investigators determined the guns appeared to have been obtained legally.
“There was no flag that could have stopped him from buying these guns,” Waters said at a news conference on Sunday. “In fact, it looks like he bought these guns perfectly legally.”
“There was nothing to suggest that he shouldn’t own guns,” he added.
The sheriff gave no further details on the 2017 Baker Act petition, but said Sunday the gunman, then 15, appeared to have been held for 72 hours and then released.
A relative of 29-year-old Gallion, who attended the vigil honoring the victims on Sunday night, described him as a fun, loving young man.
sabrina Rozier told CNN that the family is doing their best and they haven’t yet had to tell Gallion’s 4-year-old daughter that her father is dead.
“It’s hurtful, I thought the racism was behind us, but that’s obviously not the case,” Rozier said.
Dollar General identified one of the victims, Laguerre, as a store employee in a statement to CNN Sunday night.
“The DG family mourns the loss of our colleague Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre, Jr., who was a victim of senseless violence along with two of our customers yesterday. We extend our deepest condolences to their families and friends as we all try to understand 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 Senator Tracie Davis, who represents the Jacksonville area where the shooting occurred.
“I’m angry, I’m sad to realize that we are in 2023 and as black people we are still being hunted because that was it,” Davis told CNN. “That was someone who planned and executed three people.”
The attack coincided with commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, the iconic civil rights demonstration calling on the government to better protect black rights.
“[T]His memorial and memorial day ended with another American community being hurt by an act of gun violence reportedly fueled by hateful hostility and carried out with two guns,” Biden said in a written statement.
“As we continue to seek answers, we must state loud and clear that white supremacy has no place in America,” the president added. “We must refuse to live in a country where black families who go to the store or black students who go to school live in fear of being shot because of the color of their skin.”
Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday urged Congress to ban assault weapons and pass sound gun safety legislation.
“America is experiencing an epidemic of hatred. 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 in fear every day of being the victim of hateful gun violence — at school, at work, at their place of worship, at the grocery store.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, a quote from Sabrina Rozier was attributed to the wrong person.