A high school student and a relative were killed on Tuesday evening at a mass shooting at the young man’s graduation event in Richmond, Virginia, where five other people were shot and wounded.
Gunfire rang out outside a downtown theater, where the graduation ceremony had just ended, causing hundreds of attendees to flee in panic, weep and clutch their children, authorities and witnesses said.
A 19-year-old suspect tried to escape on foot but was arrested.
On Wednesday, the two killed were named as Shawn Jackson, 18, and his father Lorenzo Smith, 36.
The suspect was named as Amari Pollard and was arraigned on Wednesday morning on two counts of second-degree murder, Colette McEachin, Richmond’s top prosecutor, said.
The Richmond interim police chief, Rick Edwards, said Pollard knew Jackson. He said the two had been embroiled in a dispute for more than a year, although the nature of the conflict was still being investigated.
Jackson had just received his diploma at the graduation ceremony and walked to a nearby park with his father to reunite with the rest of their family when the shooting started, said Tameeka Jackson-Smith, Jackson’s mother and Smith’s wife. She said Smith was Jackson’s father, while Edwards later referred to Smith as his stepfather.
Jackson-Smith told the Associated Press that her and Smith’s nine-year-old daughter was hit by a car in the chaos that erupted afterward. The girl was treated for leg injuries and released from the hospital, Jackson-Smith said.
Jackson-Smith said the family had watched the graduation, then got separated in a large crowd after they walked outside. “He was so happy – oh my God – because he got to graduate. He worked hard,” she said of her son.
She said she was walking toward her husband and son when she saw a man run up behind them and start shooting.
“He was just running and shooting. I had my daughter beside me and I saw her get hit by a car. My niece almost got hit by a car. I was trying to grab them,” she said.
Edwards said police believe Pollard attended the graduation, then went outside, where he had some kind of “interaction” with Jackson, and then went to his car to retrieve a handgun.
Five others were wounded by the gunfire outside the state capital’s city-owned Altria Theater, which is across the street from a large, grassy park and in the middle of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus.
The theater is commonly used for school graduations and on Tuesday afternoon it was the the local Huguenot high school’s turn. On Wednesday morning, discarded bright yellow sashes that had been worn by teens over their graduation gowns were still lying on the ground.
At least 12 others were injured or treated for anxiety due to the mayhem, according to police.
“As they heard the gunfire, it was obviously chaos,” Edwards said. “We had hundreds of people in Monroe Park, so people scattered. It was very chaotic at the scene.
“It’s just incredibly tragic that someone decided to bring a gun to this incident and rain terror on our community.”
Six people were brought to the VCU medical center and their conditions ranged from serious to critical late on Tuesday, the VCU health system spokesperson, Mary Kate Brogan, said.
Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, vowed to ensure anyone responsible faces justice.
“This should not be happening anywhere,” Stoney said.
Officers inside the theater, where the graduation ceremony for Huguenot high school had been taking place, heard gunfire around 5.15pm and radioed to police stationed outside, who found multiple victims, Edwards said.
School board member Jonathan Young told Richmond TV station WWBT that graduates and other attendees were leaving the building when gunshots outside sent people into a panic, some of whom tried to get back inside.
“It materialized in a stampede,” he said.
The Richmond public schools superintendent, Jason Kamras, said: “I’m just tired of seeing people get shot, our kids get shot. And I beg of the entire community to stop, to just stop.”
The mass shooting, the latest in a nation increasingly braced for them, prompted calls for reform.
“The gun violence epidemic is a public health crisis that we must address,” US Representative Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat whose district includes Richmond, said in a statement. “We cannot continue to live in fear. We must address the root causes of gun violence and pass common sense gun safety policies that protect our communities.”
• This article was amended on 8 June 2023 to clarify that police believe Pollard had an interaction with Jackson.