WILMINGTON, Del. — A gunman who spent years in court battles over custody disputes opened fire Monday in the lobby of a Delaware courthouse, leaving two women dead before being fatally shot, authorities said.
“He walked right up the first victim and shot her point-blank right in the chest. He then turned around and shot a second woman who was approximately 10 feet away,” said Bill Heriot, who says he was waiting to enter the New Castle County Courthouse on Monday morning. He said the heavy-set man, who appeared to be in his 50s, pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and fired a single shot at each victim.
Heriot said the shooter then exchanged gunfire with police before falling to the floor.
Delaware State Police Sgt. Paul Shavack said the suspect and the women are dead. Mayor Dennis Williams said in a phone interview that one of the women killed was the shooter’s estranged wife, but Shavack said police had not confirmed that.
Shavack also declined Monday night to confirm Heriot’s account of the shooting, or disclose who shot whom, saying investigators were still reviewing surveillance video and taking witness statements. Authorities have also declined to release the names of the deceased.
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden said at a news conference that the shooting was not a random act of violence.
“It’s developed out of a long — over the course of many years — custody dispute in the courts of this state,” Biden said.
Authorities said two police officers were also shot, but were treated at a hospital and released. Chief William Jopp of the Capitol Police, which provides security at state government buildings, said they were protected by their armored vests.
Authorities said the gunman opened fire in the lobby of the courthouse, where people line up to go through metal detectors.
“He did not break the (security) perimeter,” Shavack said.
Jose Beltran, 53, an employee at the courthouse, said he heard two shots, “Boom, Boom,” as he was entering the lobby. Beltran said he heard at least three more shots as he turned around and ran.
“It happened so fast,” he said.
Chick Chinski, 62, of Middletown was entering the courthouse to report for jury duty when he heard popping sounds.
“It didn’t sound like gunfire first at all,” said Chinski, adding that the shooter seemed to deliberately target the two women who were killed.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s right what he went after when he come in the door. That’s exactly what he did instantly.”
Chinski said that before the shooting, he shared an elevator with the gunman and others from the parking garage. The gunman was quiet and did not appear agitated, he said.
Heriot, a plaintiff in a court case that was to be heard this week, said after the two women were shot, there was an exchange of gunfire, then a lull, during which time he believes the shooter may have been putting a new clip in his gun.
“I could smell the gunpowder in the air,” Heriot said. After the shooting stopped, he knelt down beside the first woman who was shot.
“I turned her over and unbuttoned her coat. I saw a single bullet hole in the center of her chest,” he said. “I held her hand, told her it was going to be all right. Her pupils dilated. She turned pale and passed away.”
Authorities said Monday evening that autopsies had been completed on the two female victims, but they were withholding their names while family members were notified.
After the shooting, police searched the courthouse room by room as a precaution. Streets around the courthouse remained cordoned off Monday night. Officials said the courthouse would remain closed Tuesday while repairs were made and authorities continued their investigation.
Diana Dorn, who lives right behind the courthouse, said she heard the shooting from her bedroom window.
“You could hear it really clear. It was like pow, pow, pow, pow,” she said. “That’s normal in my neighborhood with the drug dealers and everything.”
In response to the shooting, Democratic Gov. Jack Markell’s office said he would return early from a trade mission to India.
“While this shooting is notable for the fact that it took place inside a state courthouse, there are some aspects of this incident that are, unfortunately, all too common,” Markell said in a statement. “I am saddened that two more brave members of our law enforcement community have been injured in the line of duty. I am also saddened that this appears to be another example of a domestic situation that turned deadly.”