It was a wild and hairy day in Five Points on Saturday.
Two separate incidents – a shooting followed by a bomb threat and standoff – within hours and blocks of each other led to confusion and anxiety among those just wanting to get out and enjoy the day in one of Columbia’s popular shopping and entertainment districts.
People were on edge, to say the least.
“It’s awful,” said Mary Jane Garner, 55, as she stood on the corner of Greene and Harden streets Saturday afternoon. “Even the idea of a bomb threat. What are you going to get out of that? Just jail time and scaring people.”
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A Pennsylvania resident, Garner was visiting her daughter and three grandchildren in West Columbia. The family had come to Five Points to look around and maybe try the watermelon milkshakes at Cook-Out, the relatively new restaurant on Harden near Gervais Street.
But when they saw more than a dozen emergency vehicles and the crime scene tape roping off the blocks between Greene and College streets – they froze in their tracks.
Garner’s first thoughts were of the shootings in Aurora, Colo.
“Right after seeing that, this happens,” Garner said. “I’m thinking are they getting the idea from that to do something else here? That’s what I’m thinking.”
Garner, like many who had gathered on corners and at the Five Points Fountain to watch the scene unfold, had decided the two incidents were connected. The words “shooting” and “bomb threat” were on everyone’s lips.
Exactly what did happen?
Around 9 a.m. Saturday, a man brandishing a handgun attempted to rob a Cook-Out employee in the restaurant’s parking lot, according to Jennifer Timmons, a Columbia Police Department spokeswoman.
The suspect is accused of firing at least one round, Timmons said, which hit the employee in the shoulder. The gunman then took off to a nearby neighborhood, where police think he entered a residence along the 2100 block of Senate Street before disappearing, perhaps in a vehicle, on a nearby cut-through.
The victim was taken to an area hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Timmons said. Police continue to look for the suspect described by witnesses as a black male, about 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-6, with a stocky build, last seen wearing a yellow-checkered shirt and khaki pants, Timmons said.
Foot traffic heading south along the busy Harden Street corridor carried word of the shooting into the heart of Five Points as shoppers there were getting ready for a day of discounts during Five Points’ annual Summer Sidewalk Sale.
More than 30 businesses had just started gearing up for the big day. People milled around, skateboarders and cyclists whizzed past while diners had begun thinking about lunch. Everything seemed to have quieted down.
Then, around 11 a.m., a man entered the Rite Aid, three blocks from Cook-Out, walked up to the counter and told an employee that he had a bomb. He then told the handful of employees and customers in the building to get out.
“People in the store did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Timmons said. “They remained calm and exited the building.”
What followed was a standoff lasting three hours and involving five of the area’s law enforcement agencies and the FBI. Crime scene tape went up. Bomb squad tanks and robots came out. And everywhere, people’s camera phones were filming.
One young man said he was putting his video on YouTube. Another seemed to be giving someone instructions on how to post images on Facebook.
Several times police working the scene told those watching from corners to move farther back.
“If you can see the front door of the building, you’re too close,” shouted one officer.
That’s about when Delvin Goodwin of Columbia and his party of six happened by.
“It’s interesting, but it’s terrible at the same time,” said Goodwin, as he and members of his party, several of whom were in town for a wedding, stood by watching.
They had been heading toward Dreams of Bombay, but the Indian restaurant was one of several businesses near Rite Aid that was evacuated.
Police sent a robot, then, eventually, tactical teams after the man who was found unconscious in the pharmacy area of the store. The man, later identified as Gregg Hiers, had several previous charges, including drug charges, Timmons said. His last known address was a local homeless shelter.
No one was injured and no explosive devices were found.
At back-to-back press conferences held after Hiers was transported to a local hospital, Timmons was asked if Five Points was safe.
“Unfortunately, things happen all across the city, all across the state and all across the country,” she said. “It’s not just this one area.”
Timmons said that violent crime in the area actually is down and that Five Points would continue to see increased police presence and patrols.
Merritt McHaffie, director of the Five Points Association, mirrored Timmons’ statement, adding that she didn’t think the day’s events would mar Five Points’ reputation as one of the city’s “go to” places.
“You have 150 businesses in a highly concentrated area,” she said. “When you have that many people in one area, you’re going to have incidents.”
Despite the morning’s events, the sidewalk sale went on to be a “great success,” she said.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.