Paddock Mall workforce pleaded for more security long before fatal shooting

File photo: People wait in a long line for Bath & Body Works as they search for bargains on Black Friday at Paddock Mall in Ocala, Fla. on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted January 1, 2024 | By Caroline Brauchler

Current and former staffers and tenants say security at the Paddock Mall, the scene of a fatal shooting Dec. 23, is lax and that management has ignored repeated pleas for more guards and surveillance cameras for years, even after a 2021 parking lot shooting.

The employees and store owners who spoke with the “Gazette” expressed concerns that the few security guards who patrol the mall are unarmed, that management no longer hires off-duty police officers for added protection during busy periods, and that the mall has no security cameras other than those owned by individual stores.

The Ocala Police Department has confirmed neither the Paddock Mall onsite managers nor its corporate management, Washington Prime Group (WPG), requested any police presence for the busy shopping days before Christmas.

On Dec. 23, while the mall was packed with holiday shoppers, police say Albert Shell Jr., 39, entered the mall and allegedly shot and killed Ocala tattoo artist David Nathaniel Barron, 40, and wounded a woman. The woman, who was shot in the leg, is believed by police to have been a bystander not connected to either man. Shell remained at large Monday, despite a $15,000 reward for information on his whereabouts.

Ashley Gerds, former general manager of the Paddock Mall, served in the role from March 2019 until September of 2021. She said she worked to improve mall security through increased police presence during busy periods and unsuccessfully fought for there to be surveillance cameras in the common areas of the mall.

WPG has a contract with Allied Universal Security Services, Systems and Solutions for onsite security. The company, which bills itself as the world’s largest provider of security guards, hires unarmed guards to work at the mall. Any other protection must be requested from law enforcement.

“When I was there, I hired additional police officers through (OPD) to have officers on details starting Black Friday, going all the way through Christmas for peak hours and weekends in the week of Christmas to ensure the safety of patrons,” Gerds said.

OPD Chief Michael Balken said the department received neither a request for a special detail for the day of the shooting nor a request to schedule a detail for Christmas Eve.

Gerds said on average, there were about 33,000 people going through the mall per month during her time there based on reports provided to every general manager through WPG.

Gerds said she resigned from her position after two people were shot in the mall parking lot in August 2021. One victim fled into the Finish Line while the other collapsed outside the food court doors, and Gerds administered first aid to both.

After this incident, she orchestrated a meeting with corporate representatives, law enforcement officials and herself to discuss security measures.

“(Balken and Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods) absolutely told WPG that there needed to be cameras, that they were needed to be able to solve crimes and to deter people. They needed to be able to see things that were going on, and not only did (WPG) not put in cameras, but they stopped the police detail,” Gerds said.

Both OPD and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment about previous efforts to increase security at the mall and the current security and surveillance protocols there.

Gerds said during her time there, the choice to install surveillance cameras is up to the discretion of individual stores and kiosks, and about 35% of the mall’s tenants choose to have cameras.

“I want to see the Paddock Mall thrive because it means that our community is thriving, but we have to keep our community safe,” she said.

A former security director for the mall—who asked the “Gazette” to only use his first name, Ryan—said he worked with Gerds to ask for the same security measures in the mall.

“For a time, my biggest concern was adding more hours for security because (management) always cut the hours,” Ryan said. “We had basically one person per shift for the whole mall.”

Ryan was employed by Allied Universal from May until July 2021 as a shift supervisor and from that July until October 2023 as the security director.

“Every tenant meeting, the tenants asked for more officer security and asked for cameras, and every meeting (management) always said, ‘We’re working on it, we’re working on it’ and they never worked on it,” he said.

For Allied Universal to provide more security for the mall, WPG would have to ask the vendor and change their contract. Ryan said he believes staff’s requests for more security and surveillance cameras were never met because of efforts to cut costs and maintain the budget.

“By financially cutting costs and stuff, you’re actually putting people’s lives at risk,” he said.

Ryan said both he and Gerds asked for security cameras to be installed, and that he continued to ask after the 2021 shooting and after Gerds resigned. Ryan said that he knows there haven’t been any improvements since he left in October 2023, and that, “It actually might’ve gotten worse.”

“The only place that mall has security is in some of the stores, Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body (Works), the big stores, the jewelry stores like Kay’s,” he said. “They have their own cameras, but there’s no cameras that are owned by the mall.”

A former tenant of the mall, Benjamin Burke, owner of Southern Scissor Works, said he also raised concerns about security, but that management cited budget concerns in response.

In an email thread Burke shared with the “Gazette,” he put seven of his concerns in writing, including security issues such as a reduction in security staff and prevalent theft, after bringing them up verbally at previous meetings.

“A few months ago, we had a meeting with the mall management team where several store managers expressed their security concerns. Even after this, there has been a reduction in hours for security. And still the mall is having theft issues that are going unanswered,” Burke wrote in an email on July 12, 2022.

He addressed this initial email to mall management staff, including General Manager Jamie Zimbleman and Operations Director Ron Ashford, in addition to WPG corporate management members. The meeting he referred to was on April 20, 2022.

Zimbleman responded to Burke’s claims by saying there had been no reduction in security hours since the April 20 meeting, adding that as Ocala grows and the mall’s traffic and sales increase, they would plan accordingly.

“While we will never be able to completely stop nefarious people from doing nefarious things, we will continue to make the safety of our customers, tenants, and employees our top priority,” said Zimbleman in his response.

The “Gazette” reached out to Zimbleman and Ashford via phone for comment and received a written response from a WPG spokesperson.

“The safety of our guests, retailers and employees is our top priority. For safety purposes, we do not publicly discuss security practices. We maintain a close partnership with the (OPD) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We strongly encourage everyone to report any suspicious activity. If you see something, say something,” said the spokesperson.

Burke said despite management’s assurance, he was certain that there had been a reduction in hours for security guards based on conversations with people close to the matter.

Burke also recalled that at a previous tenant meeting, when he and others brought up an increase in theft and break-ins and asked for cameras, management agreed to install cameras but reversed the decision at the next meeting.

“They told everyone at the meeting that it was going to be too expensive, so they weren’t going to do it,” Burke said.

Burke said after continuous disagreements between himself and management, his lease for the barber shop was ended at the end of November 2022.

“I remember arguing with them, trying to get extra time (on the lease) for my staff, saying, ‘You’re about to put 12 barbers out of work a month before Christmas, at the busiest time of the year,’” Burke said.

Another former mall tenant, Debbie Machtel, owned the Chick-fil-A in the food court from May 2019 until October 2023. Machtel said that she had concerns about the mall’s security after the 2021 shooting.

“We all knew that it could happen at any time,” Machtel said. “(The former shooting) was definitely a traumatic experience for everybody involved and I’m sure that (the shooting) this past week was even more traumatic with it actually happening inside the mall and having a death. Not to mention the chaos that ensued as a result of that.”

Machtel said security was not the only issue prevalent in the mall, but that it was also in need of several repairs. “WPG needs to make it a priority to fix those things, such as plumbing and to make sure that cleaning is a priority,” she said.

Machtel confirmed that as of October 2023 when she left the mall, there were still no cameras in any of the common areas.

Following the Dec. 23 shooting, the mall was closed for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, then reopened on Dec. 26. Many employees who were present at the time of the shooting were expected to return to work shortly after.

A current employee of a store in the mall, who asked the “Gazette” to withhold her name, has worked there for about five years.

“We’re still pretty shaken up. You don’t come into work thinking you’re going to die that day, and then you hear gunfire and it’s like, ‘Maybe today’s the day,’” the employee said.

She said she recalled law enforcement presence in the mall in the holiday seasons of 2019 and 2020 when Gerds was the general manager of the mall but she has rarely, if ever, seen that since.

“Security here is an absolute joke. No. 1, they don’t have enough given the size of this facility and the fact that they also have to provide security for (Gaitway) Plaza,” she said.

As of Dec. 28, she said that management had not called for a tenant meeting or offered resources to employees following the shootings. Ocala Mayor Ben Marciano reached out to SMA Healthcare and was able to secure free counseling to anyone who was impacted by the shooting.

“I’m very upset that we have had very little security presence since the incident. In the last three days, I’ve probably seen security maybe half a dozen to a dozen times throughout the day,” she said.

The employee said she, along with many others who work in the mall, asked for increased security and surveillance multiple times at tenant meetings.

“Each time, we’re met with, ‘It’s not in our hands. It’s a corporate decision. It’s a financial issue,’” she said.

“(The shooting) was an awful experience,’’ she said. “And what should have been a very joyous time for us, and a celebration of everything that we have worked so hard for all year, to be with our families. It really ruined it for us, and it’s never, ever going to be the same.”

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