Life in “Big Town”—Robberies, Stabbings, Arson, and All

The other day when I posted an article about putting blame where it belonged in the mall shooting in San Antonio at Rolling Oaks Mall, I had intended to include this story as well. But, it is pretty long, so I saved it for a later post.

Around 1998-99, I was invited to Mesquite to display my products at a show inside Big Town Mall. I told the promoter of the show who had asked me to attend, “No thanks.”  It wasn’t a place where I wanted to spend four days. She kept telling me that it would be a great market for my products, and she would even sweeten the deal by assigning me a premium space next to the main entrance. She said it we be good for both of us. Reluctantly, I agreed to the show. I couldn’t see how it would greatly benefit me, but I had done other shows with her in other cities, and maybe she knew what she was talking about regarding Mesquite. But, I kept thinking that it just didn’t seem like my market.

As in most mall shows at that time, the set up time for vendors was after the mall closed on Wednesday. Set up went as usual, with no hiccups, taking a little over three hours. I had a great location, just as she had promised. It was right across from a shoe store next to the main entrance. I finished the last details on the booth and left the mall a little after midnight. I returned with optimism at about 8:30 a.m. ready for a day of activity.  A brief account of the next 4 days follows.

Day 1: After a slow morning of customer activity, around noon, I noticed a man running into the front entrance. As I watched him enter, he ran into a display of shoes that was directly across from me. Both the fugitive and the shoe display fell to the ground. He immediately got up and continued to run, but faster this time. The thought that went through my head was, “That’s kind of weird. So, he’s in a hurry, but it looks like he would have helped pick up the shoes.” While my mind was still processing this, a couple of police officers came running in as well. I thought, “There’s my answer. Probably a shop lifter.” A few seconds later, all of the security gates on the mall stores began to drop. The mall went into lock down.

My display booth was in the middle of the isle. I had no gates to drop. Nowhere to go. And, I had no idea what was going on. I approached the employee who was locking up the shoe store and asked, “What is going on?” He stated, “There was a bank robbery somewhere around here, and they have chased the armed robbers into the mall. One of them was the one who knocked over the shoe display. They think there are three of them that came in different entrances.”

After a few minutes, some order returned to the mall, but it stayed on lock down as they searched for the suspects thought to be remaining in the mall somewhere. No one was allowed to leave until it was sorted out. Probably thirty minutes in, I received a phone call. It was my mother. She said, “We were just watching the news at lunch. What mall are you at?” I said, “Probably the same one you’re hearing about.” She said, “I thought so.” She said that the news helicopter that had followed the chase was now flying over the mall. I said, “Everything seems to be relatively safe now. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.” Not long after that, all of the suspects were apprehended. But, the mall stayed shut down for a lot longer while officers searched for a firearm that one of the robbers was thought to have stashed.

Almost immediately after things had calmed down, a mall employee began to hand out flyers to all the vendors and other employees of the mall, stating: Do not speak to the media. If a reporter asks you a question, do not answer. Refer all inquiries to the mall’s public relations personnel. Mall employees, members of the public, and mall vendors were never in harm’s way with the incidents that have transpired. The authorities apprehended the alleged suspects within minutes. Again, please refer all inquiries about this subject matter to the mall’s public relations personnel.

This was not a generic flyer for incidents such as this. This flyer was dated and specific to this event. They must have been printing while everything was still in play. Without going into a lot of details, what I witnessed in the mall seemed quite a bit different than what was spun to the press. This was my first exposure to this type of CYA misinformation on a grand scale.

After the bank robbery/fugitive incident, the mall was vacant. No sales for the day. Being optimistic, I said, “Tomorrow is a new day. Fridays are usually better than Thursdays anyway.”

Day 2: Friday morning, I once again returned to the mall with optimism. Again, it was a slow start for customer activity. Most of the people there were “mall moms” pushing their baby strollers around, a routine that normally takes place in many malls. From a vendor’s point of view, you can see who is there for exercise in a climate controlled environment (versus walking on a track outside at the park, etc.) and who are actual shoppers.

I’m not exactly sure of my time line, but I think that it was around noon once more, that chaos again erupted. This time, it took place three or four stores down from me. The police were called again. This time, it turned out to be a gang fight involving stabbings. Within an hour or so, the police got it under control, and things seemed to get back to normal, but who really wants to go shopping in an area where that has just occurred? A few dollars worth of sales were made on Friday. The optimist in me said, “Well, Saturdays are usually better than Fridays. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.”

Day 3: I returned Saturday, slightly less enthusiastic than I had been Thursday and Friday. It was a slow morning, consisting mostly of friendly chatter between other vendors and store personnel over the events of the last two days. We jokingly said, “What could happen next? We’ve had armed robbers, gang fights, and stabbings.” Little did we know how wrong we were. Again, a little after noon, an undetermined commotion started, then the appearance and smell of smoke filled the air. Fire fighters started to arrive. The mall continued to fill with smoke. It was shut down, and we were all escorted outside, still not knowing what was going on. We were simply told that the mall was being evacuated and would not be open the rest of the day.

As I returned to the hotel, I talked with other vendors who were also staying there. Some had heard that the gang that had lost the fight the day before had returned and lit the mall’s cardboard compactors on fire, and firefighters were having difficulty getting the situation under control. We were not sure if the mall was going to be open or if we were going to be able to get into the mall the following day to retrieve our merchandise. Saturday night, we were supposed to be sitting in our booths until the mall closed; instead, several of us vendors went to a steakhouse and tried to make the best of the evening. Table conversation again was mostly about the events of this disastrous weekend. A few people had tried in vain to contact mall personnel about Sunday’s schedule. So, we called it a night without knowing what time to show up the next day, if at all.

Day 4: We showed up at the mall at the originally scheduled time, joyfully to find the doors open. A little bit of a smoky smell still hung in the air, but most things were no worse for the wear. None of my products were damaged. The ones mostly affected were stores and vendors who sold clothing, fabrics, material, or items that absorbed the smoke. Their inventories were totaled. I didn’t have the optimism that had accompanied me the prior three days. I just wanted to get this last day over with, load up my stuff, and go home. Much to my surprise, as soon as the mall opened for business, the customers came. It was actually one of my better Sundays for sales. It didn’t make up for the three lost days of sales, but at least it got me out of negative territory. I continued to do mall shows on and off for the next couple of years. But I never got the urge to go back to that one. Once was enough.

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