CHARLOTTE — A late Sunday night party in Charlotte over the Juneteenth weekend, a holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States, ended in bloodshed as multiple shooters fired into the crowd of more than 400 people and others were injured by vehicles frantically fleeing the scene.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Deputy Chief Gerald Smith said at a press briefing Monday morning that trouble started when someone was hit by a vehicle. Videos of the incident show multiple drivers doing tricks with their vehicles as crowds packed both sides of the street.
As police and ambulances arrived, they heard shots being fired from multiple guns of different calibers. Authorities recovered around 100 casings from the scene.
Maliyah Cook, a witness and relative of one of the victims, said the mood of the crowd leading up to the shooting had been calm. Suddenly, she heard gunshots.
“I really feel like it was a good party. I don’t know what happened,” Cook told The Associated Press. “It came out the blue.”
Cook said as she was running she looked down to see her cousin, 29-year-old Kelly Miller, fatally wounded in the middle of the street. Police have said Miller was pronounced dead at the scene while 28-year-old Christopher Antonio Gleaton was pronounced dead after being transported to the hospital.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles released a statement referring to the “senseless acts of violence that occurred during the Juneteenth street party on Beatties Ford Road early Monday morning.”
“What should have been a joyous celebration of freedom,” Lyles said, “became a moment where people lost their lives and many others suffered serious injuries. … I ask anyone with information about this to please come forward and ask everyone to find peaceful ways to settle disputes.”
Matthew Torres, a Charlotte radio personality who goes by the name Chewy, said that with fewer police and organized activities than previous nights, the atmosphere was tense preceding the fatal shootings. Police say gatherings Friday and Saturday in the area ended without injuries and that the crowds dispersed in a mostly peaceful fashion.
But on Sunday, Torres said some in the crowd seemed angry and that he “had a hunch something was going to go on.”
“You could see they were angry for whatever reason, not knowing what they were angry for,” Torres said in a phone interview.
Late Sunday night, cars were doing tricks in the street including one that performed a donut and blew a tire, he said. Soon after, an ambulance arrived and then gunshots rang out. He said it sounded like multiple people in the crowd were firing at once.
“You had one gun sound, and then maybe like a half a second later, you heard two, and then half a second later after that, that’s when anybody and everybody who had a gun was letting it go,” Torres said, adding, “We were looking at bodies in the street.”
Smith said no motive was clear for the shooting.
Near the scene hours later, Myra Stewart said she was saddened by the shooting.
“We’ve been protesting, and we’ve been saying that black lives matter. But not only do they have to matter to white people, they have to matter to us, too,” said Stewart, an African American resident of Charlotte.
Smith said the situation grew so chaotic after the arrival of authorities early Monday that a rescue team had to be sent into the crowd to pull people “off the backs of our firefighters” who were treating people hurt at the scene.
Smith also acknowledged that some officers had weapons drawn as they sought to gain control of the scene.
“They were doing the best that they can to make sense out of something that is chaotic, a mass casualty scene,” he said.
Smith said that no witnesses have come forward to describe how or why the shooting started and urged the public to help with the investigation.
The five people hit by vehicles are believed to have suffered injuries that were not life-threatening, police said in a news release. Four of them appear to have been struck while trying to leave the scene.
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney announced later the same day, June 22, that he would officially retire July 1. He had already announced his intention of retiring in 2019 but came back to help run the city’s security during the Republican National Convention, which is now largely scaled back.
Deputy Chief Johnny Jennings will be sworn in July 1 to replace Putney.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.