Fort Myers police released a vague description of a suspect who shot into a crowd during a zombie festival over the weekend, causing people dressed in ghoulish costumes to scream and sprint down the streets. Some of the revelers wondered whether the bloodshed was real or fake.
Authorities have not given a motive or made any arrests and the investigation was challenging because thousands of people at the event were in costume, wearing masks and smeared with fake blood. Some even carried fake weapons that looked real.
"Everybody was in bloody, gory makeup," said Jill Stancel, who was selling water Saturday night from her mother’s barber shop downtown when the shots rang out just outside her business’ door.
One person was killed and five were wounded.
Fort Myers is a small, sleepy city along the Gulf Coast known more for its retirement communities than downtown revelry. But for the past eight years, the city has hosted ZombiCon, which touts itself as "the largest gathering of zombies and those who love them in the state of Florida."
The event is free and draws about 20,000 people to downtown, where George Romero filmed the opening scene of "Day of The Dead," a seminal zombie movie.
ZombiCon participants are asked to donate $5, which goes toward a local charity. This year’s theme was "Fallout: 1985," an "80s throwback, post-apocalyptic mix" that included bands, dance troupes, fire eaters and other performers.
Police said the shooter is a white or possibly Hispanic man in his late teens or early twenties. He was dressed in a black T-shirt and wore a flat-billed black and red ball cap. He was spotted firing a black semi-automatic handgun.
Police also released a video from someone who was at the festival. In the footage, hundreds of people in costume could be seen milling around, some having their photos taken with a person dressed in a large skull head and holding a scythe. Four loud pops are heard in the video, and then people start to run.
The shooting happened around 11:45 p.m., just 15 minutes before the event officially ended. Authorities quickly cleared out nearby bars, set up crime scene tape and patrolled the area with rifles. Officials are hopeful that through social media, tips and videos, they will find the shooter.
"The Fort Myers Police Department would like to thank the many tipsters who are providing information as we vigorously work to solve this heinous crime. Please keep the tips coming as they are invaluable," the department said in a statement.
Retired Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said she thinks people will talk about the shooter, or the shooter will have revealed details to someone, or on social media.
"It’s pretty rare that somebody acts completely in a vacuum," Castor said. "But it’s a difficult investigation by virtue of everyone wearing masks, disguises and makeup."
Ben Brasch, a 24-year-old Fort Myers News-Press reporter, was at the event. He wasn’t in costume but had smeared a bit of fake blood on his face and was listening to a band when he "saw a mass of people running."
Brasch ran toward where everyone was running from, and saw a man on the ground with blood running down his leg and a second man, motionless.
"At first, I was like, is it real? Is it not real?" said Brasch, who wrote a first-person account for the newspaper (http://newspr.es/1QKcjcy ).
"You see and hear so much about these situations that go south," he said. "You never imagine that you’re going to be there."
Stancel, a 33-year-old fourth-generation Fort Myers native, has attended or watched all of the Zombicons from her family’s barber shop, and Saturday was no different. She was grabbing a bottle of water when she heard the shots.
She went to the doorway and pulled her husband inside, and then people in costumes started rushing the door.
"They immediately ran straight to the back of the shop and huddled," she said, adding that many were drunk and hysterical.
Killed was Expavious Tyrell Taylor, 20, who played football at ASA College, a junior college in Miami. Four others were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries and one additional victim refused medical attention, authorities said.
Jasmine Gaure, Taylor’s girlfriend, told the newspaper they had only been at the festival for about 45 minutes. They were standing in line for a drink when he was hit.
When everyone raised their heads a few minutes later, Taylor was motionless, still wearing his clown mask.