Eight people were killed Friday after a shouting gunman burst into a Harlem clothing store that had been the target of recent demonstrations, seizing hostages and setting the building on fire.
Police said the intruder, found with a revolver at his side, was among the victims, who were trapped in the blaze. Four people were wounded, three critically, by gunshots. Some customers doing Christmas shopping managed to escape before the building was engulfed by flames.
Police and community leaders said that the white owner of Freddy’s clothing store, located near the landmark Apollo Theater, was involved in a dispute with the black owner of a record store in the same building. The building is owned by a black church group.
Demonstrators had protested plans to move the record store, called the Record Shack, from the building and blamed Freddy’s. The clothing store was to expand into the record shop’s space after the move.
Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said police were investigating threats against the owner of Freddy’s by demonstrators protesting the move.
Deputy Police Inspector Joyce Stevens said the clothing store’s security guard reported overhearing some of the pickets warning that they planned to burn and loot the store.
Stevens said the security guard told police more than a week ago that he had heard the pickets saying: “We are going to burn and loot the Jews.”
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged New Yorkers to suspend judgment until police and fire marshals complete an intensive investigation.
“This is going to change three or four times before we have a real picture of what the actual facts are,” Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, said. “This is a situation in which everyone should wait and let the police do their job.”
Police have a big job to do. For more than an hour as firefighters fought flames and pedestrians ducked bullets, a block of one of New York’s busiest thoroughfares, 125th Street, was turned into a war zone.
Bratton said that 10 minutes after the clothing shop opened, a man entered brandishing a firearm in one hand and carrying a bag in the other. People on the street notified police, who radioed for help.
A police officer entered the store and shots rang out. The officer was pinned down until reinforcements arrived, rescuing him and another person from the clothing store. Just as police withdrew, an intense fire started.
“People were running all over the place,” said one eyewitness. “There was a fellow running out of the store. He was a construction worker. . . . He got shot in the back and, as he fell to the ground, I heard another shot. I saw he got hit in the head. He looked at me and he was conscious and I told him to get up and keep running.”
The fire burned for more than an hour, sending clouds of smoke though parts of Harlem before it was brought under control.
When firefighters and police finally entered Freddy’s they found the dead gunman. He had a revolver alongside his body and a container that fire marshals said held a flammable liquid. Morgue attendants later found traces of flammable liquid on the gunman’s clothing.
The bodies of two other men and five women also were discovered in the back of the store and in the basement. Police said they believe the victims had died from smoke inhalation.
“Quite possibly it is a landlord-tenant dispute that has gone awry. . .,” said Keith Wright, a Harlem state assemblyman who is familiar with the protests. “There were nasty handbills [saying] that Freddy was trying to drive Record Shack out of business.”
WNBC-TV, quoting police sources Friday night, said one of the owners of the clothing store received a phone call at home Thursday night. The unidentified caller reportedly told the owner, “Bring a coffin to your store.”
Police said that about two weeks ago a group led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a black activist, began handing out leaflets asking shoppers to boycott the clothing store to protest the record store’s possible eviction.
On Friday, Sharpton, who in 1994 unsuccessfully sought the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, stressed that he never has condoned violence. He told reporters that any suggestions the demonstrations were linked to the deaths was “outrageous.”
Stevens, who commands a police precinct in Harlem, said that about two weeks ago she went to the clothing store after about 20 pickets appeared.
“We found out there was a dispute going on between Freddy’s and the record store,” the deputy police inspector said.
Stevens said the building’s new owner, the church group, had offered the Record Shack a lease at another location but that talks had broken down. About three days later, clothing store personnel told officers about threats of looting and an investigation was begun.
The gunman’s identity was not released. The other dead were identified as Kareem Brunner, 23; Garnette Ramantar, 43; Olga Garcia, 19; Angelina Marrero, 19; Cynthia Martinez, 19; Luz Ramos, 21, and Mayra Rentas, 22.