Raleigh NC Hedingham ambush: Mass shootings hit home


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Raleigh shooting coverage

Seven people were shot in Raleigh, NC, near the Neuse River Greenway Trail. Five were killed, including a Raleigh police officer. Check back for the latest updates from The N&O’s breaking news team.

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They were going to start looking to buy their own place early next year, somewhere on the outskirts of town, somewhere with a bigger and nicer yard. For three years, Tracey Howard and his wife had been renting in the Hedingham neighborhood in east Raleigh, but they wanted a home of their own. That was the dream.

Friday afternoon, though, there was a bullet hole in the mailbox next to his driveway and a police car idling in the street, an officer keeping watch. Television reporters jockeyed to put microphones and cameras in Howard’s face while he tried to explain his stolen future, and a dream that now will never come true.

“Things don’t seem real,” he said, staring into a void while he sat on his front porch. “Nothing seems real.”

Howard, 57, had gone to the store a day earlier to buy light bulbs and when he returned his wife was on that same porch, bleeding from gunshots, their dog shot dead at her feet. Nicole Connors was one of five people killed among seven shot after neighbors say Austin Thompson, a teenager dressed in camouflage, ambushed his community.

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Tracey Howard stands on the porch of his home in the Hedingham neighborhood at 5355 Sahalee Way after talking with the media on Oct. 14. His wife Nicole Connors and their dog were killed on the porch a day earlier. Howard was running an errand at the time of the shooting that killed five people, including his wife and an off-duty police officer. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

From several accounts, Thompson, 15, terrorized his neighborhood and the greenway that runs parallel to it. The rampage began late Thursday afternoon, an evil defiling the beauty of an enviable mid-October day when the gun blasts first echoed on Sahalee Way. The shooter then made his way across the fairway of a golf course and onto the Neuse River Greenway, a popular biking and walking trail, where the horror continued.

Days later, the carnage from Raleigh’s deadliest mass shooting is only beginning to come into focus, the emotional toll just starting to be understood. What began as the most idyllic of North Carolina autumn days — the air tinged with a brisk cool, the leaves turning, the State Fair starting — turned into what Gov. Roy Cooper described as a nightmare come true.

“Tonight terror has reached our doorstep,” he said Thursday, after Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin fought her cracking voice and shaking hands to deliver a statement of her own. “The nightmare of every community has come to Raleigh.”

In a country where gun violence never stops, where gunmen have killed elementary school children in their classrooms; where people have died en masse at concerts and nightclubs and movie theaters; where the names of places like Newtown and Aurora and Columbine and Uvalde conjure memories of the horrors that happened there, Raleigh joined a dreaded club. It’s one no city aspires to but whose membership feels sadly inevitable.

The shootings in east Raleigh are the 531st mass shooting in America in 2022, according to gunviolencearchive.org, a website that tracks mass shootings in which at least four people are shot “in a single incident.” Five-hundred and thirty-two people died in those 531 shootings, according to the website, and 2,221 people were injured, including the two who were shot, and as of Saturday midday survived, in Raleigh.

Newtown and Uvalde taught us that elementary schools aren’t immune to this carnage. Las Vegas showed us the same thing about an outdoor concert. In Aurora it was a movie theater; at Highland Park, outside of Chicago, it was a Fourth of July parade.

Raleigh’s lesson proved as frightening as any: Not even our neighborhoods are safe havens. Not even one’s own porch.

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After a candlelight vigil outside the Hedingham clubhouse Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, attendees look at a memorial for those killed and wounded in a mass shooting in the Hedingham neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

The thin line between life, death in Hedingham

The house Howard and Connors shared is two doors down from where the alleged killer lived. Four others died Thursday: Thompson’s own brother, James Thompson, 16; Susan Karnatz, 49; Mary Marshall, 34; and off-duty officer Gabriel Torres, 29, who was killed while leaving for his shift with the Raleigh Police Department.

Howard learned on Friday that his wife had returned home the previous afternoon and gone inside to prepare to walk Sami, their dog. They’d stepped on the porch, Connors and the dog, when a neighbor from across the street walked over to talk. That’s when the shooting began.

A 911 call released later recorded a witness seeing only the neighbor, Marcille “Lynn” Gardner, lying in the driveway. Then the caller, a woman, noticed another victim.

“Oh, no,” she said, distraught. “I didn’t see the person on the porch.”

Calls to police and accounts from neighbors a day later spoke to the thin line between life and death in Hedingham on Thursday. If people happened to be outside — perhaps walking or about to walk their dog, or going for a jog, or playing golf, or bicycling on the greenway — they stood at risk of becoming a target.

At 5:21 p.m. Thursday, a bicyclist called Raleigh police to report that he found a woman unconscious on the trail, near a suspension bridge. “Oh my God! She’s bleeding,” he said. Her little dog was there too, he said.

Within minutes he realized another woman was down and ran to see what he could tell police.

“Oh my God, there is another person.”

But if they happened to be gone at a given time, the way Howard had been gone when he left for the store, they’d spared themselves without knowing it.

Howard thought about that, too, how if he’d been home he likely would have been out on the porch, next to his wife, when the gunman began firing. It was no consolation. He sounded haunted that he hadn’t been there.

“This is my life now,” said Howard, and he could barely get the words out to describe Connors. They’d been married five years. Howard first fell in love with her smile, then her kindness, and then he went to the store Thursday and came home and their time together suddenly was a memory.

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Police officers work the scene of a shooting in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

The mourning radiated from his porch to the surrounding streets, down along the greenway and throughout Raleigh, which had suffered days like this — the North Hills shooting in 1972; another spree shooting that killed four in 1975 — but not in a long time. At the entrance of Hedingham, the flags flew at half-staff and they did throughout the state after a Friday morning order from Cooper.

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After a candlelight vigil outside the Hedingham clubhouse Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, attendees look at a memorial for those killed and wounded in a mass shooting in the Hedingham neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

At the State Fair on Friday morning, Steve Troxler, the North Carolina commissioner of agriculture, called for a moment of silence. President Joe Biden released a statement in which he said, “Jill and I are grieving with the families in Raleigh, North Carolina, whose loved ones were killed and wounded in yet another mass shooting in America.”

“Enough,” Biden went on. “We’ve grieved and prayed with too many families who have had to bear the terrible burden of these mass shootings.” He asked God “to grant the wounded the strength to recover in Raleigh.”

Here, though, the recovery had yet to begin. Grief remained in its earliest stages. A church near the neighborhood organized a candlelight vigil, scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the Hedingham clubhouse, to mourn the dead. Even those who’d escaped physical harm, who hadn’t lost loved ones, carried fresh wounds reminding them of their mortality, or of how quickly lives could change. Some wondered: Had they, too, been close to death? Had their families?

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Raleigh Police officers walk door to door checking on residents in the Hedingham neighborhood and Neuse River Trail area in Raleigh after 5 people were shot and killed Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

‘It’s a scary world’

Lavarius Thompson, who lives steps away from where it appears the carnage began, usually works out in his open garage but he decided to rest Thursday. If he hadn’t, he could’ve been a target. He’d moved to the neighborhood in part because he found it to be safer than where he grew up in South Florida. In Hedingham, he said, he’d discovered “the best sleep I’ve had in years.”

Yet Thursday night there was no sleep. Thompson, no relation to the alleged shooter, stayed up until 5 a.m. talking with a neighbor, two friends consoling each other.

“It ain’t just here, man,” Thompson said about his young neighbor’s incomprehensible attack. “It’s everywhere. Every time you turn the corner, somebody’s just — somebody’s just got violence on their mind.”

Also nearby, it had been a long night, too, for Joe Biunno and his wife and daughter. Biunno stayed up until morning and sat on his back porch, keeping watch even after police announced, four hours after the massacre began, that the suspect was in custody.

“I just didn’t trust it,” said Biunno, who emerged from his house Friday morning and walked his dogs near the edge of the police tape blocking the street. “There could’ve been more guys.”

One fear had spawned another: He didn’t want to send his daughter to school.

She’s a sophomore at Knightdale High, the same age as the alleged gunman, who as of Saturday was at WakeMed in critical condition. His brother, who died Thursday, was a student there, too. Biunno said his daughter told him of a classmate who dressed in camouflage and boots, how “there was something off with the kid,” as Biunno put it.

“I didn’t want to take my daughter to school this morning,” he said, after dropping her off. “This is all the things that parents got to worry about. And it’s scary.

“It’s a scary world we live in, and this is even scarier that it’s right on my front porch.”

As Biunno spoke, police officers and detectives scoured the area behind the yellow tape that blocked off a section of Castle Pines Drive and Sahalee Way, near the alleged shooter’s house and near where Connors and Gardner had been shot.

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Raleigh firefighters clean the porch and sidewalk at 5355 Sahalee Way on Friday, October 14, 2022 in Raleigh, N.C., after the killing of five people yesterday in the Hedingham neighborhood including an off-duty police officer. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

A welcoming place, then a crime scene

Hedingham is a large subdivision that wouldn’t look out of place in just about any city in America. All around, on porches and front doors and in yards, were scenes that contrasted with the crime scene: autumn-colored wreaths and flowers and pumpkins and Halloween decorations and, on the side of one front door, a wooden sign that read, “Home sweet home.”

Before Thursday, the neighborhood had been like any other place where people never thought something like this might happen. Now it is transformed, like the supermarket in Buffalo or elementary school in Uvalde or the church in Charleston. It happened here. And if it could happen here, where will it happen next?

“Well, I guess there’s no technical place where it would seem like this would happen, you know?” said Amyr Rahim, Connors’ nephew, standing close to where his aunt had fallen.

Rahim drove from Charlotte on Thursday as soon as he’d heard the news, and now he was thumbing through his phone, hoping to find a nice picture of his aunt to share with a TV reporter. Connors would want that, at least, he said with a small laugh. She’d want him to find a good picture.

Rahim had last seen Connors about a month and a half ago. She’d come down to Charlotte for a surprise party in the family. Everyone hid and jumped out when the time came. Confetti fell.

“Sometimes, that’s how God sets it up, right?” said Rahim, who before that party hadn’t seen Connors in a year and a half. He found meaning in their last encounter, that “you get this time to spend with her and it’s a great time … it’s good that we got that last memory.”

Those suffering the most after Thursday mourn who they lost. But others are mourning what they lost, whether a sense of security or the illusion that this could happen elsewhere but not here.

Howard by Friday knew he couldn’t stay in Hedingham, not two doors down from where Austin Thompson lived. Police tape still surrounded that house, one part of a crime scene stretched through the winding streets with the manicured lawns and the pumpkins out front, through a fairway where detectives looked for clues and down onto the greenway in the distance.

The trail was mostly empty early Friday morning. A lone biker made it as far as the police tape blocking the greenway before turning around. The whirring of a news helicopter collecting aerial footage in the aftermath of another mass shooting in America mixed with the sounds of birds and leaves rustling in the breeze, and crickets in the marsh surrounding the river.

By then it wasn’t even the country’s most recent mass shooting. Six people had been shot in Alabama. Four in New Bern, about a two-hour drive east. In Raleigh, the unexplainable violence had arrived in a neighborhood. There, people no longer felt safe at home.

This story was originally published October 15, 2022 1:03 PM.

Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.





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