Sunday, May 09, 2021

Local News

Eyewitnesses Describe Branford Shoot-Out

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John Chambers took cover behind this pallet of hay outside his business, Shelley's Garden Center, while the active shooter sprayed gunfire from a second-story side window (which can be seen here in mid-upper left corner of the white house behind Chambers). Bullets flew over his head, with one hitting a neighboring business owner who was also outside when the shooting began. Chambers made a first 911 call to report shots fired and stayed on his cell phone with police to assist with locating the shooter. Chambers also called out to arriving officers to warn them of the location of the shooter as they first arrived on the scene on April 13. 

Pam Johnson/Zip06.com

John Chambers took cover behind this pallet of hay outside his business, Shelley's Garden Center, while the active shooter sprayed gunfire from a second-story side window (which can be seen here in mid-upper left corner of the white house behind Chambers). Bullets flew over his head, with one hitting a neighboring business owner who was also outside when the shooting began. Chambers made a first 911 call to report shots fired and stayed on his cell phone with police to assist with locating the shooter. Chambers also called out to arriving officers to warn them of the location of the shooter as they first arrived on the scene on April 13. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com )

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Front and side windows smashed out at 241 Main Street where the active shooter was later found inside, deceased. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com

Front and side windows smashed out at 241 Main Street where the active shooter was later found inside, deceased. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com )

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Customers sheltered in place inside businesses, including Richlin, at the shopping plaza directly opposite an active shooter with a second-floor vantage point at 241 Main Street. An eyewitness to the shoot-out described it as 'firefight' as soon as police came on the scene. 

Pam Johnson/Zip06.com

Customers sheltered in place inside businesses, including Richlin, at the shopping plaza directly opposite an active shooter with a second-floor vantage point at 241 Main Street. An eyewitness to the shoot-out described it as 'firefight' as soon as police came on the scene. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com )

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This view of 241 Main Street is seen from intersecting residential North Harbor Street, where a witness in his home a few doors away heard unusually loud sounds begin to break out in the area before noon.

Pam Johnson/Zip06.com

This view of 241 Main Street is seen from intersecting residential North Harbor Street, where a witness in his home a few doors away heard unusually loud sounds begin to break out in the area before noon. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com )

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John Chambers was hunkered down outside Shelley's Garden Center with this view of neighboring businesses when a bullet came over his head and struck the owner of Shoreline Wine & Spirits as he stood near the gas pumps seen here. It was the only civilian injury reported by police, who noted the wound was 'non life-threatening.' The victim was taken to a hospital by ambulance.

Pam Johnson/Zip06.com

John Chambers was hunkered down outside Shelley's Garden Center with this view of neighboring businesses when a bullet came over his head and struck the owner of Shoreline Wine & Spirits as he stood near the gas pumps seen here. It was the only civilian injury reported by police, who noted the wound was 'non life-threatening.' The victim was taken to a hospital by ambulance. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com )

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A bullet struck a window beside the front door of nearby Angel Paws Dog Grooming at 214 Main St., directly across the street from Shelley's Garden Center and in the line of fire coming from the active shooter on a second floor at 241 Main St. April 13. See next photo for close-up of bullet hole. 

Pam Johnson/Zip06.com

A bullet struck a window beside the front door of nearby Angel Paws Dog Grooming at 214 Main St., directly across the street from Shelley's Garden Center and in the line of fire coming from the active shooter on a second floor at 241 Main St. April 13. See next photo for close-up of bullet hole. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com )

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A bullet damaged window at Angel Paws Dog Grooming.

Pam Johnson/Zip06.com

A bullet damaged window at Angel Paws Dog Grooming. Pam Johnson/Zip06.com )

Shortly before noon on April 13, John Chambers was working at his Branford family business of 70 years, Shelley's Garden Center, when he heard the first shots.

"I walked out to see who was shooting a gun off," said Chambers, who immediately recognized the pop-pop-pop sound as gunfire.

From his vantage point in the middle of the outdoor garden tables which face Main Street, Chambers quickly recognized a shooter was taking aim from a second-story window in clear view two doors away, at 241 Main St., one floor above the Leon James Hair International Studio at ground level.

"It was loud, so I knew he was close. He was shooting out that side window in this direction, so I hid behind that pallet" said Chambers, who took cover behind a 7-to-8 foot stack of packed hay which had, incredibly, just been put in place in the yard that day.

"We had just dropped these pallets out in the middle of the driveway," said Chambers, adding other family members and some customers were sheltering inside the shop, at that point. Chambers kept his position behind the hay bales and called 911 to report shots being fired over Main Street.

"The dispatcher said how many rounds did he shoot, one or two? 'No, a whole bunch,'" said Chambers. "And then he started shooting a whole bunch more and I said, 'Do you hear that?'"

Saying he continued to hear "...lots of rounds -- lots of them," Chambers was still pinned down and on the phone with police when the first officers arrived at the scene, pulling to a stop in the middle of Main Street.

"I had the phone in my hand, I was talking to them. I told them where he was shooting from. It was loud. I knew he was close," said Chambers, who also yelled out to the officers on the scene to assist.

"When the cop showed up, 'I said don't pull up here, he can get you out the window.' He started shooting at the cops as soon as they got here," said Chambers. "So [the officer] was laying in his car out in the street, and I was laying behind the pallet."

Bullets continued to fly outside and over the garden center's 217 Main Street location.

"It was close. It was really close," said Chambers.

One  shot hit the windshield of a friend's car while his friend was in the vehicle, said Chambers.

"My friend pulled into the driveway next to my truck," said Chambers, pointing to a white box truck parked next door between the shooter's building and Shelley's Garden Center. The house was unoccupied during the shoot-out. "We were going to load carts there -- we load carts in and out of the truck there all the time -- and they shot a hole through his windshield in his car. He came backing out, real quick."

The parked box truck was also hit by gunfire. Chambers was still taking cover in the midst of the chaos when a neighboring business owner of Shoreline Wine & Spirits, 181 Main St. was hit by a gunfire. The business is across the street from Shelley's western edge along a residential side street, Home Place. The package store owner was outside at the service station beside his shop when he was hit.

"He shot right over my head to hit him," said Chambers of the active shooter. "He shot right across the driveway and he hit the guy that owns the package store, who was standing over at the gas pump."

The man was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he was treated for a non-life threatening injury, according to police. He was reportedly the only bystander injured during the stand-off, which lasted 7 hours until the shooter was found dead inside the building by police.

Soon after police arrived, Chambers was able to make his way safely inside his shop while the shooter and police traded fire. Chambers wonders if the shooter, who has not been identified by police, may have recognized him as the garden center's owner and did not want to fire at him. Chambers said he once helped the man, who he believes had lived at the Main Street address for at least a year,  lift items into a second-story window from the outside. Chambers also said he didn't feel the shooter was attempting to shoot to kill citizens caught in the crossfire.

"He had two different guns, I know that. I think he could have hit people easier," said Chambers. "But when the cop pulled up right across the street here, he started shooting at him, big time. It was bouncing off the street. The cop was on one side of the car, and [the shooter] was shooting at the other side of the car."

Sheltering Inside Richlin's

At  the shopping plaza across the street from Shelley's, Branford resident Ken Orsene had just left his cell phone in his car to make a quick run into Richlin Home & Auto, 236 Main St.

As Orsene exited his car at about 12:10 p.m., he noticed a police officer drive up and get out of his vehicle.

"I didn't know there was any shooting going on when I got there," said Orsene.

"I got out of my car and I just looked at the officer, and it looked like he was putting on some gear. And then, the next thing you know, all hell breaks loose," said Orsene, who had just stepped inside Richlin's.

"I saw the gun battle. I didn't see the pre-battle, which I guess was some kind of random shooting; but when the police officers arrived, these rounds started coming at them from Leon James's place. [The active shooter] was shooting right at the police officers," said Orsene.

Orsene watched as what was now two officers take cover behind their squad cars at the scene outside.

"They were hunkered down behind the police cars as protection, and he was firing at them. And then the police returned fire, on a couple of occasions – two or three times, that happened," said Orsene.

At one point early in the gun battle, Orsene and others inside the business were telling people outside in the parking lot to get inside.

"We knew there was a firefight out there, and we were calling everyone to get in," said Orsene. "There was a woman outside, and she was on the phone, and I think she was worried about her dog in the car. And we were yelling to her to please come in, come in to the store. And maybe because she was on the phone, she didn't hear us. And then a bullet hit the back windshield of her SUV."

Customers cleared the parking lot and took shelter at businesses in the plaza including Richlin's and Qwik Wash Laundromat while the gunfire continued for about an hour. Police told Orsene and other customers in Richlin to stay away from the windows and shelter at the back of the store.

"I heard a lot of rounds," said Orsene.

Orsene said it got quiet at about 1 p.m. or 1:30 p.m., once SWAT teams and Bearcat vehicles arrived on the scene. But it was still unsafe to leave the business at that time.

"The police called into the store and said 'You're locked down,'" said Orsene. "We were told to stay in place so we didn't run out the back; because you really didn't know what the situation was -- if it was isolated to that, or if there was more."

A bit later, they could hear police attempting to talk with the shooter.

"They were talking through a bullhorn, trying to get him to come out and surrender," said Orsene.

At approximately 4 p.m., officers entered Richlin's through the rear exit to escort those inside away from the scene. Orsene said they were allowed to exit through the back door and escorted in ambulances over to Branford Fire Headquarters on North Main Street, where they could be picked up by their families.

At that point in time, the plaza, Main Street and many approaches to the area were still locked down and surrounded by police and other responding agencies as an active crime scene. Orsene said he was still processing the dramatic turn his quick trip to local hardware store had taken for him.

"It was quite a firefight," said Orsene. "I was thinking, 'Wow, this is something you don't see in Branford, Connecticut."

Inside a Nearby Home

Dean Bernat was working at home in a duplex on North Harbor Street on the morning of April 13, about two doors away from the corner of 241 Main Street. He said it was well before noon when he heard something that sounded very strange.

"There was this massive sound – it sounded like somebody was tearing apart a house," said Bernat. "There was a lot of crackling."

At first, Bernat didn't think the noise could be gunshots.

"But it was going on for a quite a while in the morning, and then, when I saw the cops running across the street and hiding, I figured it is gunshots – a lot of them," he said.

Bernat said the loud gunfire continued as he moved away from windows and to the interior of the third floor of the building.  He stayed there until he heard someone yelling from outside, sometime shortly after noon.

"That was a cop, telling me to evacuate," said Bernat, who had a few scant minutes to collect his wallet, keys and other essentials before being told to run from the site.

Bernat remained under evacuation orders for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening as police continued to work the active crime scene, followed by an investigation into what police said were "several crime scenes," after police reported, at 7 p.m., the shooter had been found dead inside the building at 241 North Main St.







Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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