Officials encourage return to normalcy, shoppers refuse to be defined by shooting in Columbia mall

The mall reopend two days after deadly shooting

COLUMBIA, Md. - Heather Aiolupotea isn't really a "mall person" but she and her husband brought their two kids to The Mall in Columbia Monday anyway.

"I think everyone here feels tied to this place," Aiolupotea, 35, said. "My husband and I came to show respect for the people we lost but also for the shooter's family. We feel really bad for them and the kids who were here and who are tied to this place."

The Columbia Mall reopened Monday ( VIDEO) at 1 p.m., two days after a deadly shooting that claimed the lives of Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25, who were both killed inside the Zumiez store on the second floor. The Zumiez store was blocked with a white facade.

PHOTO GALLERY | Mall reopens two days after shooting

Before leaving, Aiolupotea and her family rode the carousel that is known in Columbia as a focal meeting point for mall goers and as an iconic landmark during Christmas time. ("Hey, meet me by the merry-go-round entrance.")

"Just by the number of people here, I think everyone is showing that we care and this is not what Columbia is like and we care about those who were affected by this, which is pretty much everyone," Aiolupotea said.

"My heart is softened toward the mall," she continued. "I'm really not into shopping. I'm not into stuff and material things but what has happened has helped me realize that this place is important to us and it is the center of our community."

Just as she walked outside with her son Tanielu – clearly cranky after a busy morning at the mall – a line started to form at the carousel. Although the investigation remained ongoing Monday, officials took the opportunity to reinforce that Columbia would bounce back from tragedy and that the carousel would keep spinning.

"I saw a space that 15 people spent well over an hour in, the size of a closest. Now they're back to work, feeling good, proud to be here. That warms my heart," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said.

Ulman, flanked by Howard County representatives, led the charge back into the mall Monday, encouraging commerce and a return to normalcy. He dined on Subway sandwiches with his wife in the food court.

Ulman and Howard County Police Chief William McMahon on Sunday echoed the statement that Columbia could be forever changed by the shooting.

"We may never be back to 100 percent normal … but we are a resilient community," Ulman said.

McMahon said, "nothing is going to go back to normal. This mall is going to be different because of what happened. We all understand that.

"But our job is to make sure that this cornerstone of our community is open as soon as possible so we can get back to some form of normalcy," he continued.

Elisa Kamens and Paulette Collier denounced that sentiment.

"I think people will know that there is a mall where there was a shooting at. But has it forever changed? I won't let that define me or my town. No," Kamens said.

The two women didn't know each other before showing up to the mall Monday.

"We met outside the door, she asked me a question, and here we are," Collier said.

The two shared a meal of McDonald's hamburgers—comfort as Kamens called it. Kamens knew Tyler Johnson through the Serenity Center, a 12-step meeting place, where he helped others stay clean of drugs and alcohol. Johnson served on the board of the center, after staying clean for two years. Board members described Johnson as tremendously caring and spoke highly of his efforts to help others.

"This is the family meeting place," Kamens said. "One of the things Rouse built on this community, is people. Rich, poor, black, white, Asian – it didn't matter. That is what makes us different. … And that's Columbia."

Collier conceded that "there is no safe place anymore," but that Columbia would rebound from tragedy.

"There are too many things that support this community," she said. "I just don't think that we will sit back and let this scorn this town."

Fred Guinn, a 75-year-old from Ellicott City, is a fixture at the mall. He said he's there most days. For him, Monday was like any other day. He sat in the food court and waited for his wife while she returned a few sweaters.

"It's pretty safe and friendly as far as I can see," Guinn said. "And I'm here all the time. Very seldom do I see any commotion going on here… My opinion of the place hasn't changed."

At a nearby table, candidates for Howard County executive, Councilwoman Courtney Watson and Sen. Allan Kittleman, sat together and dined over Japanese food in a show of solidarity.

"We'll never forget, but I don't think it changes our sense of community or our sense of well-being in Columbia," Watson said. "It's a tragedy. We feel for the families and victims. But I don't see it as forever changing Columbia at all."

Both Watson and Kittleman, before turning to politics, worked at The Mall in Columbia. Watson worked at a lemonade stand while Kittleman ran packages at Sears.

"It's not even just Columbia. It's all Howard County. I live outside of Columbia, and I come here all the time. … I think this will actually make us stronger," Kittleman said of the town's resiliency. "It brought us together like maybe we wouldn't have been before."

Columbia was built in the 1960s by developer James W. Rouse. At the center of its 10 neighborhoods, or "villages" is the mall, which made the shooting of Saturday Jan. 25, 2014 a pin-prick through the area's heart. Before the doors to the mall were reopened, officials and Columbia residents gathered for a memorial and moment of silence for Johnson and Benlolo. A number of attendees dropped flowers before a black and white sign that read "Forever In Our Hearts."

Del. Guy Guzzone, who has represented the Columbia area in one capacity or another for 19 years, was among the first elected officials to arrive.

"Quite frankly, living in the society that we live in today, across the country … we have this kind of thing in the back of our minds when raising kids and making sure that they're safe," Guzzone said. "This place is just about one of the safest places to be in the nation. Nothing changes for me. I'm committed to live my life here like I've always lived my life here."

Congressman Elijah Cummings, who also represents Columbia, said the shooting was a wakeup call.

"This is one of the safest counties in the country, and for this to happen here, just reminds us that this can happen anywhere," he said. "I believe the community is resilient but at the same time you'll never be able to walk into the mall and not think about what happened.  It's a combination. The community is resilient but they will never forget this."

Gov. Martin O'Malley also made an appearance in the food court of the mall as a show of solidarity.

"I wanted to be here, I suppose, as a symbol of the fact that everyone in Maryland is with the people of Columbia today," O'Malley said.

"Sadly, at the outset of this year, we've lost far too many lives to violent crimes," he said. "The tragedies that unfolded here over the weekend reminded us that in places around our state all of us are human, and all of us are vulnerable. But also, there are a lot of good people in our state who understand the senselessness and the tragedy of violence. We come together after events like this to affirm our belief that we're all in this together. Every life is needed. Every life is sacred."

After concluding his remarks to the media, O'Malley walked into Tutti Frutti and purchased a cup of frozen yogurt.

A second vigil has been planned for Thursday at 5 p.m. at the mall, by Benlolo and Johnson's mutual friends. Additional details can be found on this memorial Facebook page.

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