A man with a vendetta against a Maryland newspaper fired a shotgun through the newsroom’s glass doors and at its employees, killing five and injuring two others Thursday in a targeted shooting, according to police.
The attack appears to be the deadliest involving journalists in the United States in decades.
Local police said the Capital Gazette was targeted in the incident that prompted heightened security in newsrooms around the country.
A bulletin emailed to Maryland law enforcement officials identified the shooting suspect as Jarrod Ramos, 38. Police were searching an apartment in Laurel, late Thursday that is tied to Ramos.
Ramos in 2015 lost a defamation case he brought against the paper over a 2011 column he contended defamed him. The column provided an account of Ramos’ guilty plea to criminal harassment of a woman over social media.
Police, who arrived at the scene within a minute of the reported gunfire, apprehended a single gunman found hiding under a desk in the newsroom, according to the top official in Anne Arundel County, where the attack occurred.
The suspected gunman was not cooperating with police investigators. He carried canisters with smoke grenades that he used inside the building, police said.
“This person was prepared today to come in, this person was prepared to shoot people,” Anne Arundel County Deputy Police Chief William Krampf said. “His intent was to cause harm.”
Police said all of the victims killed were Capital Gazette employees: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. Fischman and Hiaasen were editors, McNamara was a reporter, Smith was a sales assistant and Winters worked for special publications, according to the newspaper’s website.
The motive of the gunman remained unclear, but police said the newsroom had recently received threats of violence through social media.
“There is nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload,” Gazette reporter Phil Davis said on Twitter.
Davis described the scene as a “war zone” and a situation that would be “hard to describe for a while,” in a news story posted to the daily newspaper’s website within 45 minutes of the shooting.
Police swarmed the area about four miles west of Maryland’s statehouse to clear the scene and evacuate more than 170 occupants of the office building to a nearby mall.
“It appears to be the act of a lone shooter,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said. “It does not appear to be a particularly well-planned operation.”
The Laurel chief of police, Richard McLaughlin, said the building where Ramos is believed to live had been been evacuated Thursday night.
The apartment is in a cluster of three-story brick buildings off Route 1 in Prince George’s County, about 35 minutes from the Capital Gazette office.
Police from Laurel and Anne Arundel County and federal officials are on the scene.
The Capital Gazette, Annapolis’s daily paper, is widely read in Maryland’s capital and in surrounding Anne Arundel County, where it is headquartered.
The newspaper touts itself as one of the oldest publishers in the country, with roots going back to the Maryland Gazette in 1727.
“Devastated & heartbroken. Numb,” Gazette editor Jimmy DeButts said on Twitter. “Please stop asking for information/interviews. I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays – just a passion for telling stories from our community.”
Ramos has worked at the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, according to a lawyer who represented him in 2011, but it could not be confirmed Thursday if he still worked there.
He seemed to carry a grudge for years against the newspaper after he was the subject of a column describing how he harassed a former classmate from Arundel High School online, first through Facebook and then through emails. Ramos pleaded guilty in July 2011 to harassment. In a column written by Eric Hartley several days later, the victim described how Ramos had stalked her online and perhaps caused her to lose her job.
Ramos then apparently created a website that detailed his complaints against Hartley and the newspaper.
The shooting began about 3 p.m. in a brown five-story office building just outside downtown Annapolis.
In an interview with a local ABC Television affiliate, a man who works in a different office in the building said he heard an “incredibly loud bang” and looked out of his office to see a man surrounded by shattered glass holding a gun at the front door of the Capital Gazette.
“This guy was holding what looked like a big shotgun and moving across the entrance of the Capital Gazette office, pointing the gun deeper into the office like he was targeting people,” the man said.
First responders entered the building and immediately encountered a woman with life-threatening injuries and other wounded people before finding the suspect under a desk, Schuh said. He said no gunfire was exchanged between the shooter and police.
Four people died at the scene, and one woman was pronounced dead after she was taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Schuh said.
Police carrying automatic weapons rushed about 170 office workers with their hands raised above their heads out of the building to a department store across the street.
“I was so scared,” said Rayne Foster, who works on the fourth floor. “I was very scared.”
Locked in a room with about a dozen others, Foster had sent a text to her daughter: “There’s an active shooter. I love you.”
“I was taking deep breaths,” she said. “We could hear them busting out the glass doors and windows. It was so surreal.”
Karen Burd, 27, was on her fourth day at work in a tax-litigation firm in the building when a co-worker told her there was a shooter.
Her first thought was to find a room in which they could barricade themselves. She and four others crammed into the room and called 911. Soon, police were banging on the door.
“I started praying,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “You just think, ‘Is this going to be my last day?’ ”
The police bomb squad investigated a knapsack that was found near the suspected shooter and contained an unknown device.
“It was quite obvious that this person had some sort of vendetta against the Capital newspaper,” said Lt. Ryan Frashure, a county police spokesman.
Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said police had conducted active-shooter training last week.
“If they [law enforcement] were not there as quickly as they did, it could have been a lot worse,” Buckley said. “We did not expect this to happen in our community, but I don’t think we could have been any more ready.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also commended the quick police response.
“It’s a tragic situation, but there were some very brave people who came in and kept it from being worse, and the response time was incredible,” Hogan said, standing with police and local officials at the scene.
The impact of the shooting reverberated through newsrooms outside of Maryland. The New York Police Department said it “deployed counterterrorism teams to media organizations” in and around the city “out of an abundance of caution.” District of Columbia police planned to station two uniformed officers outside the The Washington Post building and other media outlets also increased security.
The Capital Gazette, with an editorial staff of 31 people, had a daily circulation of about 29,000 and Sunday circulation of 34,000 as of 2014.
Commonly referred to as the Capital, the paper was founded in 1884 as the Evening Gazette. The Baltimore Sun Media Group – owned by Chicago-based Tronc – bought the paper in 2014 from Norfolk, Virginia-based Landmark Media Enterprises. The new owners converted it from an afternoon publication into a morning paper in 2015.
The paper had previously been part-owned by the late Philip Merrill, who was the owner and publisher of Washingtonian magazine.
The paper traces its roots to a related paper, the twice-weekly Maryland Gazette, which was founded in 1727 in Annapolis and is one of oldest periodicals in the United States. One of the Maryland Gazette’s first publishers was a protege of Benjamin Franklin’s. An early editor and publisher was Anne Catherine Hoof Green, one of the first women to hold such a job at an American newspaper.
“Founded by British journalist William Parks, the Maryland Gazette recorded several achievements during its illustrious history,” the newspaper says on its website. “In 1767 Anne Catharine Green became the first female newspaper publisher in the country and the newspaper fought the dreaded stamp tax that started the American Revolution.”
The Annapolis paper is unrelated to the chain of weekly Gazette papers that were published in the Washington suburbs by The Washington Post until 2015.
The Capital Gazette moved to its office on Bestgate Road in September 2014. The newsroom is on the first floor of the office building and is easily accessible from the main entrance, said Buckley, the mayor of Annapolis.
The newsroom is an open space, and “the desk would be the only place you could hide,” Buckley said.
Buckley said Annapolis is a small town where officials all know the newspaper’s reporters, who report on zoning issues, local crime and even a cat stuck in a tree.
“They don’t make a lot of money – maybe $30,000 a year,” Buckley said. “It’s immoral that their lives were at risk.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Lynh Bui, Ovetta Wiggins, Tom Jackman