ANTIOCH, Tenn. (AP) — A man armed with a hatchet and gun unleashed a volley of pepper spray at audience members inside a movie theater Wednesday, exchanging fire with a responding officer before being shot dead by a SWAT team as he tried to escape out a back door, police said.
The attacker, identified as a 29-year-old white local man, was carrying two backpacks, one of which hung from his chest, and he wore a surgical mask, possibly to protect himself from the pepper spray he unleashed in large amounts during the showing of "Mad Max: Fury Road," Metro Nashville Police spokesman Don Aaron said. He said three people were blasted with the spray and treated. There were eight people in the theater, including the assailant, Aaron said.
As he fled out the back, the attacker encountered and exchanged gunfire with the SWAT team before he was shot dead, Aaron said. About two dozen gunshots could be heard in a 10-second period in raw video footage posted online by WKRN TV. Police Chief Steve Anderson said Wednesday evening that authorities had not yet found the assailant's gun.
The shooting at the Carmike Hickory 8 complex comes about two weeks after a 59-year-old drifter opened fire inside a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, fatally shooting two before killing himself. Both shootings happened while jurors in Colorado decide whether the man who killed 12 and injured 70 others during a theater shooting in 2012 should receive the death penalty.
One of the people hit with the pepper spray in the theater also had a cut that evidently was caused by a hatchet, Aaron said. Aaron identified the victim only as Steven because he said the man did not want to bring any more attention to his family.
"The only thing that I would like to say is that I'm eternally grateful to the Metro Police Department for their fast response today, and the fact that no one else got injured other than the person who did this," Steven said.
"And I would also like to thank all the citizens who gathered around us, helped my daughter when we were pepper sprayed. That kind of gives me a little bit more faith in humanity again."
Steven added that he had "no idea why this gentleman decided to attack us."
One of the attacker's two backpacks was detonated and then found to contain a fake bomb, Aaron said. He said investigators were going through a second backpack that the assailant left at the theater. No one was taken to a hospital.
The only person shot was the assailant, whose motive was still unclear, Aaron said. His name was not immediately released. Police initially described him as a 51-year-old white local man, but Anderson later said authorities believe he was 29. Anderson said the man had an ID on him but police want to confirm his identity through fingerprints and other means.
The entire event transpired over less than an hour's time. Aaron said the first call came in about 1:13 p.m., and that two officers outside in the midst of a traffic stop responded within two minutes just as witnesses ran toward them. An officer came into the theater and was fired upon by the attacker, Aaron said. The officer shot back, then backed off but, Aaron said, the officer kept the gunman confined to a single theater in the complex.
Erick Vale, 32, an Uber driver, told The Tennessean newspaper that he was dropping off passengers in the theater's parking lot when he heard gunshots.
He described it as "utter chaos."
"I just couldn't believe this was happening again," he said.
Mattie Sanchez works at the Sprint store near the theater. She told The Associated Press by phone that a man who had two backpacks and fit the description of the attacker tried to enter a backdoor of the store about 11 a.m.
"One of our techs went to see what was going on and he was walking down the back of our store," said Sanchez, 28
She said the man, who had dark hair and was wearing a yellow shirt, also walked in front of the store.
Sanchez said she later heard what sounded like "rapid fire" and saw the large police presence.
The theater complex sits in a commercial area in Antioch, a middle-class community in the southern part of Nashville. It's next to the Global Crossing mall, a past-its-prime shopping area recently upgraded with an ice rink developed by the Nashville Predators professional hockey team.
Anderson said violence like Wednesday's shooting are likely to happen "anywhere we gather," then added: "This is maybe what we call the new normal. We can't say we're not going to theaters, we can't say we're not going to church. We carry on."
The latest shooting comes about two weeks after John Russell Houser killed two people and wounded nine others before fatally shooting himself during a screening of the movie "Trainwreck" at a theater in Lafayette, Louisiana.