'Horrible': SUV crashing into, rolling through Woodfield sets off panic inside
A 22-year-old man is in custody after he crashed his black SUV through an entrance and drove through Woodfield Mall Friday afternoon, sending customers and employees fleeing in fear for their lives.
Schaumburg police said the man drove into the entrance at the Sears store on the east side about 2:20 p.m. and proceeded through the common area before coming to a stop in the mall center court. Police said the driver, the sole occupant of the vehicle, was detained by mall customers, including two off-duty police officers, then taken into custody by police without further incident. He was treated at the scene and refused medical transport.
Three people were taken to the hospital for medical issues that were not life-threatening and injuries that were not a result of the vehicle hitting anyone, police said. Schaumburg fire personnel and other agencies treated four others on scene, all of whom declined transport to the hospital.
Schaumburg Police Chief Bill Wolf said the man - who he said was not from Schaumburg but from the Northwest suburbs, with initial information that one of his last addresses was in Palatine - drove clear through the Sears store before driving into the mall's common area. He said the man may have had a medical issue.
"There is no indication that this incident is related to any type of terrorist act," Wolf said. He said police originally received reports of an active-shooter situation, but "I can confirm that there absolutely was no shots fired. There was no active shooter."
"It appeared that what people heard as shots fired was from broken glass in the mall," he said.
Wolf said Woodfield was not a target of the driver and there's no information the driver had any connection with the mall, even though he said there was video evidence the man had walked into Sears and back out before driving into it.
"We don't have any indication that he was angry or had any specific reason to target the mall. We don't have any record of contacts with him in the past," Wolf said.
Wolf said his department won't release additional information on the suspect until any charges are authorized by the Cook County state's attorney's office.
Police, who Wolf said arrived within two minutes, remained on the scene for hours - some at entrances holding rifles - as the mall was evacuated as a precaution.
Entrances were blocked off, and authorities urged people to avoid the area. The mall was expected to remain closed Friday night. The investigation is ongoing.
Husband and wife Raul Cardenas and Liset Alvarez from Jalisco, Mexico, had just arrived in town Friday morning with their 6-year-old daughter, Andrea, and 10-month-old son, Ian, to visit Alvarez's cousin, Sandra Lopez of Schaumburg. They were in the area near the lower-level entrance to Sears when they heard a loud bang and saw a dark-colored, older SUV driven by a man come out of the Sears, Alvarez said in Spanish.
There was a little train for children to ride moving through that area. Children were not in the last train car, which was struck by the SUV, Alvarez said.
People started screaming at that point, she said.
The SUV kept moving and smashed into a store, backed up and then smashed into another store. That's when the couple thought, this wasn't an accident but deliberate. Their daughter was especially terrified.
"It was horrible," Alvarez said.
Lopez said she herself was very worried.
"Thank God it didn't happen on a Saturday or a Sunday when the mall is really crowded," Lopez said.
Ronin Diedenhofen of Bartlett, who was making his first visit to Woodfield since last winter, was just about to take the elevator up in the same area and saw the same scene. He started recording a video on his phone once the SUV was past him.
Adrenaline pumping, Diedenhofen followed the vehicle and eventually saw someone who appeared to be an off-duty police officer pull a young man out of it.
"He was just out of it," Diedenhofen said of the driver. "He had a thousand-yard stare. I don't know if he was just on drugs or a disgruntled employee, but there was something wrong with him."
Diedenhofen then went to the dining area on the upper level of the mall. Though he thought the danger was over, more police began arriving and shouting for everyone to leave the mall, he said.
Other witnesses also shared their frightening experiences.
The driver hit a post near the children's play area, Janely Arroyo said. "Thank God he didn't reach it," she said of the children's area.
Nancy Hernandez, who works at The Body Shop, said she saw people running, heard a loud bang and thought it was a gunshot. She and a co-worker ran to the front door and told an older couple to come in. They locked the door and ran to the back of the store, where they stayed for about an hour.
"We were really scared," Hernandez said. "We didn't know what was going on."
They kept calling mall security, who gave them several updates and told them to stay in place and wait for someone to come to them before leaving. The security officers "were really good about that," she said.
Eventually, a police response team with rifles escorted them out in a single line and told them someone was in custody.
While many of the mall's entrances have barriers that would block a car from coming through, none are directly in front of the lower-level, east-side Sears entrance.
"This is something we will work with the mall to increase security and prevent something like this from happening again," Wolf said.
Alyssa Luke, a permanent-cosmetics artist at Asha Salon/Spa on Woodfield's lower level, said she would hug her 3-year-old tightly when she got home. Luke didn't see the driver go past, but once workers learned about the emergency, they had to focus on their customers' safety, she said.
Employees locked the doors and reassured clients.
"We went into all the rooms and made sure everyone was OK," Luke said. "At first, everyone was calm, then a few people were upset. We said, 'Everything's safe.'"
Once police ordered the evacuation, Luke and her manager double- and triple-checked rooms in the salon for clients, then left, too.
"I was calm and collected. ... It wasn't until I got into the parking lot and started getting calls from my family that I got emotional," she said. "You never know what someone's intentions are."
Brenda Herrera of Crest Hill said she hid in the back of the Skechers shoe store on the second floor of the mall with her 3-year-old daughter, Mikaela, her 2-year-old son, Matteo, and her mother, Adeline. The employees assured her the glass windows and doors were bulletproof.
"I heard a loud crash. My instinct right away kicked in to hide," Herrera said. "I started to freak out, but I tried to stay composed for my kids."
Debbie Ficl, an employee of the Vera Bradley store, said she saw some people running and heard a loud noise like a pop. She and her fellow workers ran through a back door to the outside of the building.
Martini Mackey, manager of the Get Happy candy store, said she was off Friday but went to the mall out of concern for an employee. But she was forced to remain outside while the employee was still inside.
"He's kind of panicking. They went right past our store," Mackey said. "The employee went inside and locked the gate and is hiding out."
Trevor Mimms, 26, of Schaumburg, who visits Woodfield daily, got there at 3 p.m. to meet friends and found entrances blocked and people outside trying to learn what was happening to people they knew inside. He likened the situation to recent mass shootings.
"I feel like there is a rise in anger in people. This has always been a place of peace, of fun," Mimms said. "I've always thought of Woodfield Mall as a place I can bring anybody for a good time. This is super insane. It's so surreal."
Wolf praised the first responders. "It clearly was a very chaotic day. But I would like to commend the incredible response by our officers," he said. "It was definitely the training that we worked on for years came into play, training that we did in cooperation with the mall."
Schaumburg High School Principal Tim Little sent a message to parents about 2:30 p.m. that administrators had received a report of a possible safety concern at Woodfield Mall and went into a soft lockdown. Police soon confirmed no threat to students existed.
Wolf said the plan is to let the mall open in the morning. He said the mall has been inspected and there is no major structural damage.
"The mall has been a safe place and is one of the safest malls in the area and will continue to be a safe place," Wolf said.
• Daily Herald staff writers Madhu Krishnamurthy, Marni Pyke and Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.