Thoughts eleven days later

At 3:39, Jennifer Hunt Murty while on the ground ten feet from the shooter, texted the police Chief Michael Balken that there was an active shooter. At 3:40 she texted come now. At 3:41 she texted In front of Macy’s. Not being able to take a call she texted also, active, can’t talk. By 3:42 bystanders started to assist one man shot in front of Starbucks and she texted locations of where victims were at. By 3:47 one police officer had arrived. By 3:48 paramedics and more law enforcement arrived at the scene.

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Posted January 3, 2024 | Commentary by Jennifer Hunt Murty

On Dec. 23, I was at the Paddock Mall wrapping presents with a few other happy folks whom I had just met, helping to raise money to support local victims of domestic violence. I don’t remember all their names; we were too busy folding colorful wrapping paper and making bows to make more than obligatory small talk.

I do remember that when I arrived at the mall, I was thinking about the future. The year 2023 was very tough personally and professionally. Yet, a new beginning was on the horizon, and I was hopeful for 2024.

At 3:39 p.m., within an hour of my arrival, I was standing at the wrapping tables immediately in front of Starbucks when I heard a gunshot. Just as I turned toward the sound, I saw a man fire a second round.

After hearing that shot and seeing the sea of holiday shoppers scatter in fear, all of us gift wrappers realized we had nowhere to run and simply dropped to the floor.

It’s now been 11 days since the shooting, and I continue to process what I witnessed. While others who were there that day may be trying to walk away from the memory of those terrifying moments,  I’ve returned to the mall multiple times.

My intention each time has been to obtain security videos, talk to people and try to help the “Gazette” team report on the aftershocks that still linger: Namely, a dangerous suspect who is still at large while numerous business owners at the mall tally their financial losses from the violent incident.

We are trying to shed light on why this dangerous repeat offender–identified by the Ocala Police Department as Albert Shell Jr., 39–was at the mall rather than in jail on Dec. 23.

Shell is accused of killing Ocala tattoo artist Davis Nathaniel Barron, 40, and wounding a woman bystander in the leg. Shell remains free despite a $15,000 reward offered for information about his whereabouts.

It was at least 8 minutes from when I heard the first shot to when I saw a lone police officer arrive on the scene; and 11 minutes before paramedics arrived.

A lot happened during that time. For me, it included a flashback to an equally terrifying moment: Seven years ago, I walked into my home to find an armed intruder.

At that time, I lived in Laurel Run, a gated community with a staffed guard house. It took six minutes for law enforcement to arrive at my home. That is a good response time, but it was a long six minutes to try to calmly chat with the intruder. He mostly begged me to let him go before OPD showed up. I asked him questions about his background while I waited for help.

That may sound strange to some, but asking questions is sort of my fall-back move, even in a crisis.

This experience led to me taking a gun safety course and getting my carry permit. Both situations could have turned out very differently for me. I’m extremely grateful to be alive today to share a few of my takeaways at this juncture.

Response times are critical to public safety

Even with all the reporting we have done on public safety response times, it may be hard to grasp how long those minutes feel as you wait and how much can be lost in those minutes.

As a community, we must invest more money in improving public safety. But just throwing money at this problem won’t solve anything; we need to invest in infrastructure to meet our needs so that we can responsibly address the strain growth places on social services and public safety- particularly when it comes to addressing violent crime. And, boy, has it brought a lot. I’d love to back up this statement with statistics, but we are still waiting on FDLE to correct crime statistics from 2021, while we wait on 2022 and 2023.

Trust me when I say if you ever find yourself in a crisis, you will want ambulances, patrol cars and fire stations ready at a moment’s notice. You don’t want to wait your turn.

If we can all accept this reality, we can take personal responsibility and be better prepared to either respond to or avoid a crisis.

In a crisis, all you can count on is yourself and the people who are nearby. You must instantly decide how you will protect yourself and others. Often, the best option is to flee.

But sometimes, you can’t. That was the situation those us at the mall found ourselves in that afternoon.

I know it’s a controversial subject, and this admission may be surprising to some, but I own a handgun. I usually have it with me, but I did not that day. Instead, I was lying on the ground looking at my purse and wishing I had a chance to defend myself and others.

My editor challenged me with this: What would I, could I, should I have done if I had my gun? Good questions. I would like to believe that had there been someone randomly spraying bullets into the crowd, I would have had the courage to try to use the laser sight on my revolver to aim at the shooter.

As we hid and listened to the shooter move around the space for more than 30 seconds, we had no way of knowing if we were targets. But when I saw him shoot the second shot, I could see he was definitely aiming at someone.

And, arguably, there were other people in the mall that day who were armed. But if so, should they have started shooting into a hysterical crowd running everywhere?

So, no, having a gun isn’t always the solution.

The conversation now should not be about living in fear or vigilante behavior. We should be talking about being proactive and controlling the things we can. Gun ownership may be controversial, but a person’s right to have everything necessary to defend themselves is, and should remain, undeniable because if the bad guys have guns, I want one, too.

But with these commonsense caveats: I have a carry permit, I have taken a class on gun safety, I have passed background checks, I have practiced with my weapon and I am extremely mindful of keeping my gun safe at all times.

And, most importantly, I don’t have diagnosed mental health issues. If any one of those elements were missing, then I, or anyone else, should not be carrying a loaded gun, despite what Florida’s constitution currently allows.

Do we know the basics of first aid to help others?

In a crisis, you may be the only person who can help the stranger standing next to you survive, and vice versa. Let’s plan to be a good Samaritan now by educating ourselves in the basics of first aid.

It’s a New Year’s resolution that I’ve made with my best friend. We’ll learn together, which goes back to my point of accepting the reality of who is going to be there in a moment of crisis. It’s just you, and the people around you.

Reactions to crisis are so varied

When the mall shooting happened, people, including children, were pushed over in the rush to get out. Watching security footage later, I took note of one little girl left alone to find cover as the rest of her family ran. She was looking at candy at that moment when the shooter fired for the first time no more than five feet from her, while older kids, students from Vanguard, played holiday music nearby.

But there was also bravery. While shots rang out over more than 30 seconds and people rushed everywhere, a few tried to keep an eye on the shooter, looking for any opportunity to intercede.

The man who died on the scene, Barron, a 40-year-old Black man, within seconds of being shot had strangers trying to help him even when they didn’t know if it was safe to assist.

I know sometimes it’s uncomfortable or inappropriate to point out a person’s race. But in reflecting after the fact, I recall it was white bystanders trying their hardest to keep Barron alive. At that moment, there was no skin color. The blood that ran at their knees was the same color as their own.

The young woman who was wounded, whose name we are not releasing at OPD’s request, was an innocent bystander. It was not appropriate at the time for me to ask her questions, but her face seemed so innocent, and she didn’t cry.

One of the people helping the victims chastised me for taking a photo of the scene, likely mistaking me for a social media gawker. The “Gazette” would never publish such a photo; I took it only for the purpose of texting it to OPD Chief Michael Balken so he knew the situation and so that I could be able to recall details later and report on them accurately.

I was disappointed to see other photos of Barron on social media later by bystanders. The photos weren’t respectful of what his friends and family were likely experiencing in the aftermath. That is the difference between a journalist and a layperson wielding a camera: we try to handle such sensitive information as ethically as possible,  always with the intent to inform while minimizing harm.

A renewed commitment to report on public safety

It’s probably no surprise for regular readers of the “Gazette’’ for me to acknowledge Balken isn’t exactly a fan of mine or of this newspaper. We’ve had our disagreements over what each of us thinks the citizens of Ocala have a right to know. But at that moment, Balken was the first person I reached out to, mainly because I trusted that he would respond quickly and do his job.

Had I not been an eyewitness to the crime, I’m certain the “Gazette’’ would have had a much harder time independently reporting crucial information the public needed to know. And that is our job.

This experience has caused me to rethink how I allocate the “Gazette’s” resources for reporting. Despite extensive reporting on response times, budget concerns, questions involving mugshots of teenage suspects and other matters involving the OPD, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies, we have not focused enough on public safety issues. We haven’t provided the public with enough information so they can protect themselves and their families better. There is information the public needs to support policies and the people who keep us safe. The public needs to understand why we have this horrible uptick in violent crime and what is needed to combat it.

I hope the OPD, MCSO, and the State Attorney’s office will welcome our soon-to-be increased records requests and questions along with our promise to deliver reporting that is fair and accurate, always favoring the public’s right to know.

We may need the public’s help paying for public records because these agencies charge the most for records.

Which leads me to my final thought.

Journalists you can count on

After reaching out to law enforcement and before they or paramedics arrived, I called two people. The first was Caroline Brauchler, who in June started working full time as a reporter for the “Gazette’’ after interning with us for almost a year while finishing her degree at the University of Central Florida; and next, our award-winning photojournalist Bruce Ackerman, who has decades of experience.

Caroline has worked every day since the shooting, through Christmas and New Year’s Day and beyond, to gather information the public needs to know. She’s been persistent, encouraging witnesses to come forward while navigating public information roadblocks. It has not been easy for her.

And our readers can always count on reporter Andy Filmore to humanize the impact of crime by connecting us with details about the victims of it. His immediate reaction was to remind us that part of our community was grieving, and so he started tracking down family and friends.

Filmore has knocked on doors seeking information about the suspect that some people would be afraid to approach. For those of you who only know Filmore as a kind and well-mannered man, I’m here to tell you he’s also fearless.

And, brave journalists make for a brave newspaper.


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