By Gary Fineout and Brendan Farrington Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — What was supposed to be a routine Friday night ritual of socializing, dining and exercising in an upscale shopping center a few miles from Florida’s Capitol turned into a chaotic scene after a gunman shot two people to death and wounded five others at a yoga studio before killing himself.
Tallahassee police say 40-year-old Scott Paul Beierle shot six people and pistol-whipped another after walking into the yoga studio that sits on the second floor of the small shopping plaza. Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo said that some in the studio showed courage and tried to stop him.
Witnesses who were at the shopping center described how people who had been in the studio, including one who was bleeding, ran away, seeking shelter in nearby bars and restaurants as shots rang out.
Police responded within a few minutes, but by then Beirele had fatally shot himself, leaving police to search for a motive and a community to wonder what prompted the violence near the city’s fashionable midtown neighborhoods.
“You don’t think about this in Tallahassee and now you have to,” said Elle Welling, who said she saw at least three people loaded into ambulances as she was leaving a liquor store across the street.
The two slain Friday were a student and faculty member at Florida State University, according to university officials. The department identified them as Dr. Nancy Van Vessem, 61, and Maura Binkley, 21. Police said two other victims were in stable condition, and three had been released from the hospital.
Van Vessem was an internist who also served as chief medical director for Capital Health Plan, the area’s leading health maintenance organization.
“To lose one of our students and one of our faculty members in this tragic and violent way is just devastating to the Florida State University family. We feel this loss profoundly and we send our deepest sympathies to Maura’s and Nancy’s loved ones while we pray for the recovery of those who were injured,” FSU President John Thrasher said in a statement.
Police said Beierle acted alone but they were still looking into what prompted the shooting. During a late night press briefing, DeLeo declined to say what kind of gun the shooter had.
Court records show that he had been previously arrested for grabbing women.
Beierle was charged by police with battery in 2016 after he slapped and grabbed a woman’s buttocks at an apartment complex pool. Records show that the charges were eventually dismissed after Beierle followed the conditions of a deferred prosecution agreement.
Beierle was also charged with battery in 2012 for grabbing women’s buttocks in a Florida State University campus dining hall. A FSU police report shows that Beierle told police he may have accidentally bumped into someone, but denied grabbing anyone.
The plaza where the shooting took place is home to popular restaurants, a jewelry store, a framing shop, a hair salon and other businesses.
Erskin Wesson, 64, said he was eating dinner with his family at a restaurant located below the yoga studio when they heard the gunshots above them.
“We just heard ‘pow, pow, pow, pow,'” Wesson said. “It sounded like a limb falling on a tin roof and rolling.”
The restaurant’s owner came by a short time later, asking if anyone was a doctor, Wesson said. His step-daughter is an emergency room nurse and helped paramedics for about an hour, he said.
Melissa Hutchinson said she helped treat a “profusely” bleeding man who rushed into a bar after the incident. She said three people from the studio ran in, and they were told there was an active shooter.
“It was a shocking moment something happened like this,” Hutchinson said.
The people who came in were injured, including the bleeding man who was pistol-whipped while trying to stop the shooter. They told her the shooter kept coming in and out of the studio. When he loaded his gun, people started pounding the studio’s windows to warn people.
Both Gov. Rick Scott and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor, broke off from the campaign trail to return to Tallahassee. Scott and Gillum both visited gunshot victims, including one who had been shot nine times. Gillum said the two women he met “were in good spirits.” Gillum also praised Scott, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, for his “care and consideration” in meeting with the victims.
Gillum asked residents to pray for the survivors and those who were killed.
“We all feel a sense of added vulnerability” because of the shooting, the mayor said.
The two candidates resumed their schedule Saturday. Scott is expected to join President Donald Trump for a Saturday evening campaign rally.
Tallahassee’s crime rate has been an issue in the governor’s race. Gillum’s opponent, Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, has called the capital Florida’s most crime-ridden city — a claim that is incorrect.