LAKELAND, Fla. – The four-door sedan pulled up near an intersection in a central Florida city where people were milling about, the tinted windows came down and people from inside the vehicle started shooting in all directions, wounding 11 men, including two critically, police officials said.
Only a minute earlier, a school bus had dropped off children in the Lakeland neighborhood on Monday afternoon.
“It sounded like one of those huge rolls of firecrackers tied up to each other,” said neighborhood resident Tina Smith, who lives 50 feet (15 meters) from the lot where the shootings took place. “But you knew it wasn’t firecrackers.”
Authorities on Tuesday offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspects involved in the shooting in Lakeland, a city of 112,000 residents located about halfway between Tampa and Orlando.
One of the critically-injured men was shot in the stomach, and the other was shot in the jaw. The others had non-life-threatening injuries. The victims were males between the ages of 20 and 35, said Lakeland Police Chief Sammy Taylor at a news conference.
After the shootings, the vehicle peeled off. Detectives believed they found it Tuesday morning in a Lakeland neighborhood and planned to run lab tests on it to verify it was the vehicle involved in the shootings.
“I’ve been here 34 years, and I can tell you I have never worked an event where this many people were shot at one time, ever,” Taylor said. “We consider ourselves to be a small town ... and when stuff like this happens, it hits home, for me, at least."
Taylor said investigators believe the shooting was a targeted attack and wasn't random. Some of the shooting victims were cooperating but others weren't, detectives said.
Police said marijuana packaged for sale was found at the scene of the shooting, and investigators believe drug sales were taking place. While the lot was known for drug dealing and other street crime, nothing had ever taken place on the magnitude of the shootings, Smith said.
“It's definitely unexpected," Smith said. “But I still feel safe. It wasn't like the whole block was sprayed. They were coming with names on the bullets, obviously."
Taylor described the neighborhood of cinder block and wood frame bungalows with small yards as “challenged,” a place where a lot of renters reside, and he said the police had focused a lot of attention on the area in recent years. Many of the homes have bars on the windows, and on Tuesday multiple bullet holes could be seen in the window of a nearby apartment building near the empty lot where the shootings took place.
Miguel Joseph, a neighborhood resident, said drug dealing was common at the lot, and he believed the suspects came from outside the neighborhood.
“That’s all they do, every day,” Joseph said of the drug selling. “I hope they don’t come here anymore.”
The police chief said officers had tried to remove “the criminal element" from the neighborhood, and they had put “quite a few people in jail from that neighborhood," but often former criminals return to dealing drugs when they get out of jail.
“It’s a tough neighborhood and there are some challenges,” Taylor said. “We’ve put a lot of resources and manpower in trying to fix that.”