The first popping noises sounded like firecrackers or maybe a gun salute honoring the American flag.
Then someone screamed, “There’s a shooter.”
And, in an instant, everyone understood the reality.
This is the country of Uvalde. Of the Tops Friendly Markets store. Of the Waukesha Christmas parade.
They grabbed their children under the arms and ran.
They left behind strollers, lawn chairs, cellphones and purses. They took only what mattered.
“People were terrified, screaming,” Highland Park resident Joe Leslie said. “It was a scene from a nightmare.”
It’s a story witnesses to the deadly shooting at Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade told over and over again in the hours after the tragedy. In painful, chilling detail they recounted how someone opened fire during an annual community celebration, killing at least six people, injuring more than two dozen and leaving an entire town traumatized.
Police arrested Robert “Bobby” E. Crimo III, 22, on Monday evening following an hourslong search. He had previously been described as a “person of interest” in the case by Highland Park police Chief Louis E. Jogmen.
Leslie and his family were sitting near the corner of Central Avenue and Green Bay Road when the shots rang out. He immediately grabbed his 4-year-old daughter, Grace, while his wife grabbed their 2-year-old and they both ran. The couple lost each other amid the chaos, each on their own path to take a child out of harm’s way.
Leslie ran with about two dozen others into the bathroom at a nearby Starbucks.
“We were jammed in there, kids crying, people completely traumatized,” Leslie said. “I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t a great place to be, let’s get the hell out of here,’ to be honest.”
He grew even more anxious when he couldn’t reach his wife. Unbeknownst to him, she had dropped her cellphone in the melee and couldn’t call him. She eventually used a stranger’s phone and let him know that she and their other daughter were OK.
After about 10 minutes in the Starbucks, Leslie, Grace and some others ran to a nearby apartment building because they thought it would be safer. They spent about 45 minutes in the building’s stairwell, listening for sounds of more shooting before a woman welcomed them into her apartment, he said.
“We spent the last three hours sitting on her couch,” Leslie said.
While his daughter didn’t fully grasp the horror of what had happened, Leslie said he would have trouble feeling safe again.
“We do loads of stuff in this community. She’s always at the pool, we go to the parks, she’s in summer camp here and our 2-year-old’s in summer camp,” he said. “And now, this hasn’t fully sunk in yet, but I do not want her to be vulnerable to this.”
A native of England, Leslie said he’s “seriously looking at moving back there because I don’t feel safe” due to America’s endemic gun violence.
Other witnesses wondered how deeply the day’s events would wound their children, whether the horrific memories of what they saw and heard on Monday’s sunny summer morning would ever fade.
“We just explained to them, ‘There’s a bad guy with a gun and we have to run to keep you safe.’ How do you explain this to young children?” Carrie Mangoubi asked hours after fleeing with her three children and a niece for safety.
It started as a typical Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, a well-heeled suburb about 30 miles north of Chicago. The paradegoers were predominantly white and affluent, in keeping with the community’s demographics. The suburb also has a significant Jewish population, as reflected by the inclusion of a klezmer band, which entertained the crowd with joyous music.
“This is one of the (safest) communities,” said 27-year-old Jack Steward, who barricaded himself for two hours at the New Balance shoe store where he works. “It’s insane you can witness something like this coming to work.”
Mangoubi also struggled to understand how something like this could happen in Highland Park, a town that has had only two murders in the past 20 years, according to the available crime data.
But she heard the shots ring out. And saw the marching band break away from the route and start sprinting down the street.
Shortly after that, firetrucks and police cars started speeding down the parade route, she said.
“It didn’t even cross my mind that there would be a shooter,” Mangoubi said. “Then somebody yelled, ‘There’s a shooter!’ so we just picked up our kids, grabbed them under their arms and just started bolting to the car.”
Gabriela Martinez-Vicencio, of neighboring Highwood, went to the parade with her 9-year-old daughter and met up with other family members. She said she and a relative thought initially the blasts were fireworks.
“I just fell to the ground … my daughter hugged, I guess, my nephew and my niece. Then as soon as I was able to reconnect myself, I grabbed my daughter because I started screaming out for everybody’s name that I saw and then we ran,” Martinez-Vicencio, 33, said outside of NorthShore Highland Park Hospital, where she was told her niece was being treated for a minor injury after possibly scraping her leg while running away from the gunfire.
In the mayhem, Martinez-Vicencio bumped into a woman and they both fell to the ground. When she got back to her feet, she pushed her daughter into a store and tried to find a place to hide her.
“I started crying. We all started crying.”
Shane Selieg, 29, was on a street corner nearby when the tragedy started. He had volunteered to work the holiday as a medic. Selieg performed CPR on a gunshot victim, he said, and his leg was covered in blood.
“A lot of shooting,” he said, describing the massacre. “A lot of panic. A lot of fear.”
In the shooting’s immediate aftermath, dozens of police vehicles filled the streets and officers stood on businesses’ roofs wielding rifles and standing watch.
People filtered in and out of a Highland Park municipal building designated as a family reunification center Monday afternoon. Some brought coolers of food, boxes of doughnuts and water and Gatorade, while others sought information about family or friends.
At least three people reported they were there for news of family or friends, or other information about the shooting, but declined to speak further.
Among those coming to the reunification center was Jonathan Birnberg, still dressed in a flag-patterned shirt. Birnberg walked into the municipal building to speak with police because he and his family were concerned about returning home with the shooter at large.
They live near the parade route, have sheds in their backyard and weren’t sure if they locked their doors, he said. He said he understood police might be too busy to check their home.
Birnberg was at the parade when he heard gunshots, though he said many people first thought, or hoped, that it was fireworks.
Then, everyone scattered, and he was initially separated from family members. Friends and neighbors, though, scooped up any kids they could find, he said.
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Birnberg first sheltered in a coffee shop but later went to a friend’s house, where he remained for several hours.
“It’s very scary, Birnberg said.
Highland Park resident Greg Pestine was watching the parade downtown, just after the band passed, when he heard the shots.
As parade watchers scattered and police headed toward the sound, Pestine ran into an alley, where families with children were crying.
After the commotion died down, Pestine looked back at the crime scene and saw victims lying on the ground in the sidewalk area on 2nd Street at Central. One man, he said, was lying on his back, shot in the chest, while bystanders tried to stop the bleeding.
Another man lying in a pool of blood was motionless when a bystander turned him over.
”Highland Park was just next in line for one of these things,” Pestine said. “It’s so random.”
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