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Gunfire led to massive police response at theater

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Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman speaks at a news conference on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, outside of the AMC Fire Tower movie complex, where a shot was fired inside of a theater the night before. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, February 24, 2018

A dispute over seating at a showing of “Black Panther” on Friday prompted a panic and an immediate and massive response by law enforcement when a man fired at least one shot from a pistol into the ceiling at the AMC theater, Greenville’s police chief said.

Mark Holtzman said the officers flooded the complex on Fire Tower Road after receiving calls from inside Theater 2 that shots had been fired about 11:45 p.m. No one was hurt in the incident, and the department is looking for the man suspected of firing the shot, Holtzman said during a news conference outside the theater at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

He and Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly praised law enforcement in what Holtzman called a “textbook” response to a possible active shooter. 

“Officers were in the area and arrived within two minutes,” the chief said. “We had two officers on scene, and those two officers entered the building in what we call our active-shooter response protocol. They were armed with rifles and did make direct entry into the plaza and went straight to Theater No. 2 where the threat was taking place.” 

Holtzman said a second and third wave of Greenville officers also responded. They worked with ECU police officers and Pitt County sheriff’s deputies to “basically flood the theater,” the chief said. By midnight, the flashing lights of police vehicles filled the parking lot and officers secured entrances along Fire Tower Road and elsewhere.

After making sure everyone was safe, officers checked the complex and began their investigation, the chief said. Additional phone calls came in from the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market next door reporting that some of the individuals involved in the dispute may have relocated there.  

Three people were detained but have since been released. Holtzman said department investigators believe they were victims in the dispute.

The chief said the incident began as an argument over seating for the blockbuster movie, which has sold out theaters locally and across the country since its debut Feb. 16.

“The theater has very large recliner style seating,” Holtzman said, ”And the recliners are purchased just like you would purchase a seat at a concert or football game. There was a dispute over who’s in whose seat, and that dispute quickly turned into a pistol being pulled out and at least one shot being fired off in the ceiling.”

Investigators recovered a shell casing and are continuing to investigate, Holtzman said at the news conference. “Detectives are reviewing [security] footage and trying to get some images off of the camera of our suspect.” 

Police on Saturday were looking for a black man who was wearing a blue and white shirt and a blue and white hat. He had purchased a ticket and was with a woman, Holtzman said. 

“We hope to be releasing some video or still pictures of that individual later on today as detectives begin to get that video together,” Holtzman said Saturday. 

Moviegoers ran from the Theater 2 after the incident and the panic spread to others in the complex. 

Bill Lamanteer was in the parking lot after the incident and called over to a television crew that was nearby. He said he was exiting a showing of “Black Panther” when the commotion began, he said.

“Someone said ‘shooter, active shooter’ and it sounded like some popcorn popping,” Lamanteer said. “Didn’t sound like gunshots. Then all of a sudden (you) hear some girls scream.”

Someone said “No. 2, No. 2, leave, leave,” Lamanteer said. He and some other adults shuffled a half dozen children into the restrooms and stood outside of the rooms until it was safe, he said.

He worried what would have happened if police had been prompted to fire their weapons. “This could have been nasty,” he said.

Holtzman praised his officers for their bravery in how they responded.

“I’m very proud of them,” he said. “I’m proud of how they arrived ready to do their job ... A lieutenant was here with them last night and sent a message that spoke about the bravery of the officers as they entered. They were without hesitation.”

It comes down to the right equipment and training, he said.

“Active-shooter response is something that is new for law enforcement across the country. I believe that our department is on the leading edge of active-shooter response and active-shooter training,” he said. “My goal as a chief is to keep them equipped and trained as best we can. It really comes down to the men and women wearing the badge. They stepped up the plate last night without hesitation, and I’m very proud of them.”

Mayor P.J. Connelly praised the collaborative efforts between law enforcement agencies and condemned the dispute and gunfire that disrupted what should have been a pleasant experience for theater patrons.

“This type of behavior is unacceptable in the city of Greenville,” Connelly said. “We’re extremely thankful that we have a great police department to keep all the citizens safe, but discharging a firearm in a dwelling inside the city limits is unacceptable. The Greenville Police Department will make sure the person responsible for this is held accountable.”

On Saturday, police were asking anyone with information about the incident and anyone who was in Theater 2 and left the area before talking to officers to please contact the department.

“What we would ask the community is to work with us,” Holtzman said. “Our goal is to speak to everybody that was in that theater last night to make sure we’ve covered all of our bases. If you were here last night, if you were in movie theater No. 2, we need to talk to you ... Even if it was nothing more than, ‘I was in there; I didn’t see anything.’ Perhaps you [saw something] and you don’t even know it.

“We will continue to investigate this and pursue this matter very aggressively and our goal is to bring some closure to this case and obviously prevent this type of incident from happening in our community again in the future,” Holtzman said.

Anyone with information is asked to call 329-4150. 

Bobby Burns contributed to this report. Contact Tyler Stocks at Tstocks@reflector.com and 252-329-9566.

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