JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A federal hate crime investigation is underway after a white gunman with a swastika-emblazoned assault rifle killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, authorities said.
The shooting claimed the lives of Angela Michelle Carr, 52, Anolt Joseph "AJ" Laguerre Jr., 19, and Jerrald Gallion, 29.
The gunman, identified as 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmeter, left racist writings and used racial slurs before launching the attack Saturday and then killing himself, Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said.
"There's no question" the killings were racially motivated, the sheriff told CNN on Monday.
"He hated Blacks, and I think he hated just about everyone that wasn't white," Waters said. "He made that very clear."
The killer was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and a handgun -- which were both legally purchased, the sheriff said.
The Justice Department is now investigating the shooting as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Sunday.
The slaughter of everyday Americans going about their daily lives is the latest in a series of shootings targeting Black people -- including at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, last year and a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
Suspect went to a historically Black campus beforehand
The shooter, who lived with his parents in Orange Park in Clay County, left his home around 11:39 a.m. and headed to Jacksonville in neighboring Duval County, Waters told CNN on Saturday.
At 12:48 p.m., he stopped at Edward Waters University in New Town, a predominately Black area of Jacksonville, where the sheriff said the suspect put on a bulletproof vest. A TikTok video captured him getting dressed, Waters said.
A student flagged down campus security when they saw the shooter because he "looked out of place," Edward Waters University President and CEO Dr. A. Zachary Faison Jr. told CNN.
The man immediately got in his vehicle and started to drive away after being confronted by a security officer, who followed him until he left campus, Faison said.
"We don't know obviously what his full intentions were, but we do know that he came here right before going to the Dollar General," Faison said. "Members of our university security team reacted almost immediately. I think the reports are in less than 30 seconds after he made contact and drove onto our campus."
Faison said the campus security actions alone probably saved "dozens of lives."
"It's not by happenstance, we believe, that he came to the first historically Black university in this state first," Faison said.
University police followed him out of the lot around 12:58 p.m. and flagged down a sheriff's officer, saying there was a suspicious person on campus, Waters said.
Florida will give $1 million to Edward Waters University to help the school strengthen security in the wake of the attack, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday.
"We are not gonna allow our HBCUs to be targeted by these people," DeSantis said.
Despite the suspect's questionable appearance on campus, the sheriff said there was no firm evidence that he planned to carry out an attack at the university.
"He had the opportunity to do so, and he did not," Waters told CNN on Monday. "For some reason, he was focused on that Dollar General."
A 4-year-old girl loses her father
One of Gallion's relatives, Sabrina Rozier, said the grieving family doesn't know how to tell Gallion's 4-year-old daughter that her father is never coming home.
"It's hurtful," Rozier said. "I thought racism was behind us. And evidently, it's not."
Dollar General identified one of the victims, Laguerre, as an employee of the store.
"The DG family mourns the loss of our colleague Anolt Joseph "AJ" Laguerre, Jr., who, along with two of our customers, were the victims of senseless violence yesterday," the company said in a statement to CNN.
"We extend our deepest sympathies to their families and friends as we all try to comprehend this tragedy. There is no place for hate at Dollar General or in the communities we serve."
Florida State Sen. Tracie Davis represents the area where the shooting happened and said the premeditated, racist attack is a devastating sign of the times.
"I'm angry," Davis told CNN. "I'm sad to realize we are in 2023 and as a Black person we are still hunted, because that's what that was."
How the carnage unfolded
At 1:08 p.m., the gunman shot into a black Kia at the nearby Dollar General parking lot and killed Carr, the sheriff said. He then entered the store and fatally shot Laguerre, the sheriff said.
Others fled out the back exit of the store followed by the suspect seconds later, the sheriff said. He then came back inside and shot at security cameras.
The first 911 call went out at 1:09 p.m., seconds before the third victim, Gallion, walked into the store with his girlfriend.
The gunman then fatally shot Gallion and chased after another person, whom he shot at but didn't hit, the sheriff said.
At 1:18 p.m., the gunman texted his father and told him to go into his room, where the father found a will and a suicide note, the sheriff said.
Officers entered the store a minute later -- 11 minutes from the start of the shooting -- and heard one gunshot, which is presumed to be when the gunman shot and killed himself, the sheriff said.
The suspect's family members called the Clay County Sheriff's Office at 1:53 p.m., the sheriff said.
Authorities on Sunday played two short video clips of the shooting.
One clip shows the shooter, wearing a tactical vest and blue latex gloves, pointing his weapon at a black Kia car outside the store, and the other shows the shooter walking into the store and pointing his rifle to his right.
"I wanted the people to be able to see exactly what happened in this situation and just how sickening it is," Waters said.
The shooter did not appear to know the victims and it is believed he acted alone, he said. "He targeted a certain group of people and that's Black people," Waters said at a Saturday news conference. "That's what he said he wanted to kill. And that's very clear ... Any member of that race at that time was in danger."
The suspect had left behind writings to his parents, the media and federal agents outlining his "disgusting ideology of hate," the sheriff told reporters Saturday.
Guns were purchased legally
Photos of two weapons the gunman had were released by authorities, including one firearm with swastikas drawn on it.
The shooter had no criminal arrest history, and it appears he legally purchased the two firearms earlier this year, the sheriff said.
The shooter was the subject of a 2017 law enforcement call under the state's Baker Act, which allows people to be involuntarily detained and subject to an examination for up to 72 hours during a mental health crisis.
Waters did not provide details on what led to the Baker Act call in that case but said normally a person who has been detained under the act is not eligible to purchase firearms.
"If there is a Baker Act situation, they're prohibited from getting guns," he told CNN on Saturday. "We don't know if that Baker Act was recorded properly, whether it was considered a full Baker Act."
On Sunday, the sheriff said investigators found the guns appeared to be obtained legally.
"There was no flag that could have come up to stop him from purchasing those guns," Waters said at a Sunday news conference. "As a matter of fact, it looks as if he purchased those guns completely legally."
"There was nothing indicating that he should not own guns," he added.
The sheriff did not provide further details on the Baker Act petition from 2017, but said Sunday it does appear that the shooter, who was 15 at the time, was held for 72 hours and then released.
The killings happened on or near key anniversaries
Saturday's tragedy happened exactly five years after a mass shooting in downtown Jacksonville at a Madden video game tournament.
It also took place on the same weekend as the 63rd anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday -- when over 200 white rioters wielding baseball bats and ax handles threatened and beat Black people in Jacksonville, according to the Zinn Education Project.
The attack also coincided with the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, the iconic civil rights demonstration that called on the government to better protect the rights of Black people.
"(T)his day of remembrance and commemoration ended with yet another American community wounded by an act of gun violence, reportedly fueled by hate-filled animus and carried out with two firearms," President Joe Biden said in a written statement.
"Even as we continue searching for answers, we must say clearly and forcefully that white supremacy has no place in America," Biden added. "We must refuse to live in a country where Black families going to the store or Black students going to school live in fear of being gunned down because of the color of their skin."
Vice President Kamala Harris called for Congress to ban assault weapons and pass common sense gun safety legislation.
"America is experiencing an epidemic of hate. Too many communities have been torn apart by hatred and violent extremism," Harris said. "Too many families have lost children, parents, and grandparents. Too many Black Americans live every day with the fear that they will be victims of hate-fueled gun violence -- at school, at work, at their place of worship, at the grocery store."
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