WOODBRIDGE NJ MARCH 9 2012 — A suspected shoplifter who held a woman hostage at knifepoint inside Woodbridge Center was shot to death by a police officer this evening, setting off a scene of chaos inside one of New Jersey’s largest shopping malls, authorities said.
The incident unfolded shortly after 5 p.m. on the upper level of the mall’s Sears wing. After he was confronted by mall security for an alleged shoplifting in the Hollister Co. apparel store, the suspect put a knife to the throat of a random shopper and pulled her inside the Sears store, according to several officials familiar with the incident who were not authorized to comment publicly.
An off-duty Woodbridge police officer who was wearing his police uniform and working an extra duty job at the mall shot the suspect, killing him, according to a news release issued late tonight by Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan and Woodbridge Police Director Robert Hubner.
“After a brief pursuit, the suspect grabbed a female shopper and threatened her with a knife, according to the preliminary report by Woodbridge police,” the release said. “Woodbridge police reported that after repeated warnings, the officer fired at the suspect, who was pronounced dead at the scene.”
The hostage, who was not immediately identified, was not injured, authorities said. The officer also was not identified.
Stunned shoppers initially thought the commotion overhead might have been a fight.
Barbra Gaffney, 52, of Colonia, and her daughter, 18-year-old Lindsey Howarth, were in a nearby optical center when the incident began. The women said they saw two white-uniformed mall security guards dashing toward the Sears store and heard screaming.
“All of a sudden we heard a loud noise,” Gaffney said. “I said to my daughter, ‘That’s a gunshot.’ “
Some stampeding customers ran for cover, Gaffney said.
One Sears worker who said he heard the boom thought it might have been someone who tripped on the escalator. But when he rushed to help, he said, he saw the body of a man lying in a puddle of blood on the ground near one of the store entrances.
“I went downstairs and I saw the dead body,” said the employee, 18-year-old Sisir Biswas. “I was shocked.”
Nearby, officers held back a crowd that had gathered to look.
Tyler Bruno, 18, of Woodbridge, arrived at the mall right around the time of the shooting.
“There’s people coming out saying, ‘Do not go in. It’s crazy in there. Something bad just happened,’” Bruno said, adding that customers told him a man held a large-bladed knife to the woman’s throat.
An employee at the f.y.e. entertainment store, in the same wing as Sears, said she saw security guards try unsuccessfully to wrestle the man to the ground.
The employee said she heard someone yell “Knife!” and saw a blade in the man’s hand as he ran past.
He continued running, the employee said, before grabbing a woman who had been at a candy machine next to the Sears entrance.
“When I stepped out, you could see him dragging her by the hair and see him backing up into Sears as if he was trying to get away,” the shaken employee said.
When police arrived, “They said, look, drop your weapon … and he didn’t — and that’s when they fired,” the employee said.
At about 7:30 p.m., a woman from Sears was wheeled upright in a gurney into a waiting ambulance, using her clothing to shield her face from television cameras. It was not immediately known whether that was the woman was the one who was being held.
With about 220 stores and 1.5 million square feet of space, Woodbridge Center is the third-largest shopping mall in New Jersey, behind only Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus and Freehold Raceway Mall. The mall is located just off Route 1, in the shadows of the Garden State Parkway.
The wing where the shooting happened includes major brands such as Hollister Co. apparel, f.y.e. entertainment and the family-oriented Disney Store.
Investigators from the Woodbridge Police Department and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office were at the scene tonight investigating the shooting.
Jim O’Neill, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said the state Attorney General’s office was notified of the shooting — as is routine for shootings involving police.
It was the fourth police-involved shooting in the county since September. Two people were shot by officers in New Brunswick, one fatally, and another person was wounded in Monroe Township.