JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A masked white man fatally shot three Black people inside a Jacksonville, Florida, Dollar General store in a predominately African-American neighborhood on Saturday, in an attack where he used a gun painted with a swastika, officials said. The shooter, who had also posted racist writings, then killed himself.
Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters told a news conference that the attack that left two men and one woman dead was definitely “racially motivated."
“He hated Black people,” Waters said after reviewing the man's writings, which were sent to federal law enforcement officials and at least one media outlet shortly before the attack. He added that the gunman acted alone and “there is absolutely no evidence the shooter is part of any larger group.”
Waters said the shooter, who was in his 20s, used a Glock handgun and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with at least one of them painted with a swastika. He was wearing a bullet-resistant vest. He said the shooter had once been involved in a 2016 domestic violence incident and was once involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for examination. He did not provide further details on those incidents.
Officials didn’t immediately release the names of the victims or the shooter.
The sheriff said the gunman had left behind in his writings evidence that leads investigators to believe that he committed the shooting because it was the fifth anniversary of when another gunman opened fire during a video game tournament in Jacksonville, killing two people before fatally shooting himself.
The shooting happened just before 2 p.m. at a Dollar General about three-quarters of a mile from Edward Waters University, a small historically Black university.
In a statement, the university said that shortly before the shooting, one of its security officers saw the man near the school's library and asked him to identify himself. When he refused, he was asked to leave. The man returned to his car.
Sheriff Waters said the man was spotted putting on his vest and mask before leaving. He said it is unknown if he had originally planned to attack the school.
“I can't tell you what his mindset was while he was there, but he did go there," the sheriff said.
Edward Waters students were locked down in their dorms for several hours after the shooting. No students or faculty are believed involved, the school said.
The shooter had driven to Jacksonville from neighboring Clay County, where he lived with his parents, the sheriff said. That house was being searched late Saturday.
Shortly before the attack, the shooter sent his father a text message telling him to check his computer. The father found the writings and the family notified 911, but the shooting had already begun, Sheriff Waters said.
“This is a dark day in Jacksonville’s history. There is no place for hate in this community," the sheriff said. “I am sickened by this cowardly shooter's personal ideology.” He said the investigation will continue. The FBI was helping the sheriff's office and said it had opened a hate crime investigation.
Mayor Donna Deegan said she is “heartbroken.”
“This is a community that has suffered again and again. So many times this is where we end up,” Deegan said. “This is something that should not and must not continue to happen in our community.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis, after speaking by phone with the sheriff, called the shooter a “scumbag" and denounced his racist motivation.
“This guy killed himself rather than face the music and accept responsibility for his actions. He took the coward's way out,” said DeSantis, who was in Iowa campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination.
Both President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland were briefed on the shooting, officials said.
Dollar General's corporate office said in a statement that the company was supporting its Jacksonville employees "as we work closely with law enforcement.”
Virginia Bradford lives in the neighborhood of modest brick and cinder block houses near the store. She frequently shops at the Dollar General, and said she meant to go there Saturday for detergent and bleach, but got sidetracked by other plans.
“That’s my store,” Bradford told reporters, looking past patrol cars with flashing lights blocking the street to the store a block away. “I know everyone in the store. It’s sad.”
Unsettled by the racist killings, Bradford, who is Black, said she doubts she’ll ever go back.
“I won’t even send my kids up there anymore,” she said. “My nerves are bad.”
Penny Jones told The Associated Press in a phone interview that she worked at the store, located a few blocks away from her home, until a few months ago.
“I’m just waiting to hear about my co-workers that I used to work with,” Jones said. “I don’t know if it’s safe to move about the neighborhood.”
Jones added that she was “feeling awkward, scared.”
Rudolph McKissick, a national board member of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, was in Jacksonville on Saturday when the shooting occurred.
“As it began to unfold, and I began to see the truth of it, my heart ached on several levels,” said McKissick, who is a Baptist bishop and senior pastor of the Bethel Church in Jacksonville.
The neighborhood of the shooting is known as Newton. “It’s a Black neighborhood, and what we don’t want is for it to be painted in some kind of light, that it is filled with plight, violence and decadence,” McKissick said.
The shooting took place within hours of the conclusion of a commemorative March on Washington in the nation’s capital, where organizers drew attention to the growing threat of hate-motivated violence against people of color.
Reached by The Associated Press on Saturday evening, march attendee and Jacksonville native Marsha Dean Phelts said learning of the shooting was “a death blow.”
“It hurts,” Phelts said by phone while on a charter bus home from Washington. Many fellow bus riders began hearing about the deadly shooting in their community, just before they all boarded to make the long journey back, she said.
“It’s a neighborhood, a Black community that we come out of,” said Phelts, 79, who is Black. “It’s where our college is, Edward Waters University.”
LaTonya Thomas, 52, who also was riding a charter bus from the march home to Jacksonville, said she wouldn’t allow the shooting to completely dampen her spirits. But she did feel sadness.
“We took this long journey from Jacksonville, Florida, to be a part of history,” she said. “When I was told that there was a white shooter in a predominantly Black area, I felt like that was a targeted situation."
The attack on a shopping center in a predominately Black neighborhood will undoubtedly evoke fears of past shootings targeting Black Americans, like the one at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket in 2022, and one at a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
The Buffalo supermarket shooting, in particular, stands apart as one of the deadliest targeted attacks on Black people by a white lone gunman in U.S. history. Ten people were killed by the gunman, who has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The shooting happened one day before the 63rd anniversary of one of Jacksonville’s most notorious racist incidents, “Ax Handle Saturday.” A group of Black protesters were conducting a peaceful sit-in at a city park to protest the Jim Crow laws that kept them out of white-owned stores and restaurants. That's when they were attacked by 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan, who hit them with bats and ax handles as police stood by.
Only when members of a Black street gang arrived to fight the Klansmen did the police intercede. Only Black people were arrested.
Raoux reported from Jacksonville, Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Ahmed reported from St. Paul, Minnesota. Associated Press writers Aaron Morrison in New York and Mike Balsamo in Washington contributed.