A neighborhood dispute led to gunfire early Sunday at an annual all-night arts festival in Trenton, leaving one dead — a suspected gunman — and 22 injured, including a 13-year-old boy.
Police were in the process of shutting down the Art All Night event at the Roebling Wire Works warehouse amid escalating altercations between several visitors when at least two men started shooting at about 2:45 a.m. Police said there was gunfire both inside and outside the venue on the 600 block of South Clinton Avenue.
About 1,000 people were still at the event when the shooting began, triggering a stampede.
Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri said two men are in custody and a 33-year-old man was shot dead by police. He said a “neighborhood beef” was behind what happened.
At a late-afternoon news conference Sunday, authorities identified the dead man as Tahaij Wells, who had been on parole since February after serving time in prison for a fatal 2002 shooting he committed when he was 17.
Amir Armstrong, 23, who is in critical condition with unspecified gunshot injuries, was charged with weapons offenses, including having a handgun with an extended capacity magazine. A third unidentified suspect is also hospitalized in critical condition with gunshot wounds, authorities said.
>> READ MORE: ‘Please do not go.’ Facebook warned of Trenton shooting
The violence was presaged on social media Saturday, said Jerell Blakeley, a recently elected councilman-at-large, who pointed to a Facebook post that said: “Please. Please. Please. Do Not Go to the Art All Night. They will be shooting it up.”
The head of the New Jersey police union said the gunmen fired with “no care for innocent people around them.”
“Officers engaged the active shooters to stop the senseless violence,” Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said in a statement posted on Twitter.
"The events in Trenton are tragic, but the actions of the Trenton Police officers is heroic. They faced suspects shooting at each other with no care for innocent people around them. Officers engaged the active shooters to stop the senseless violence," President Patrick Colligan.
— New Jersey State PBA (@NJSPBA) June 17, 2018
“Sounds like it was some sort of dispute — we will bring the full weight of law and justice against them,” said Gov. Murphy, who spoke Sunday at a service at the Galilee Baptist Church in Trenton.
Mayor-elect Reed Gusciora said in an interview at the church that the shooting “appears to be a turf war” between neighborhood gangs.
“It’s a concern,” he said. “We are about to enter the summer and we have to change the mindset of Trenton so that people don’t solve things with violence, particularly gun violence.”
Before the shootings, there were several physical altercations inside and outside the venue, and police instructed organizers to shut down the event. Police had begun to disperse the crowd, though many were loitering, Onofri said.
He said 17 people were shot, and several were in critical condition. Others were injured in the chaos and panic that followed the shooting.
“There were people trampling other people, cars hitting other cars,” said Gennie Darisme, who was getting ready to leave the festival when she heard shots and saw people running.
Onofri said the matter remains under investigation, including the extent of the officers’ involvement in any shootings. “Multiple” guns were recovered at the festival scene, he said, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is at the site to tally up spent casings.
The violence marred an event, in its 12th year, that aimed to attract 30,000 visitors to experience visual artists, short films and a diverse range of about 60 live music groups in a 24-hour marathon. The remainder of the festival, which was scheduled to run until Sunday afternoon, was canceled.
Mayor Eric Jackson said Trenton had never had a shooting of this magnitude. He called the arts festival “a great event” but said it might need to tighten security and perhaps change its hours.
The shooting attracted international media attention and condemnation by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“This is unacceptable, and it’s long past time for our elected officials to stand and say enough,” Brady co-president Kris Brown said in a statement issued late Sunday morning.
City officials had discussed increasing security ahead of the event, which has drawn larger crowds in recent years, but the city had not recommended the use of metal detectors, Onofri said.
Festival organizers posted a statement on Facebook on Sunday morning. In addition to confirming the festival’s cancellation, organizers said, “our staff, our volunteers, our artists and musicians all seem to be healthy and accounted for.”
“We’re very shocked,” organizers said in the statement. “We’re deeply saddened. Our hearts ache and our eyes are blurry but our dedication and resolve to building a better Trenton through community, creativity and inspiration will never fade. Not tonight. Not ever.”
Police are also investigating an attempted carjacking that occurred around the time of the shooting, Onofri said, to determine whether it was connected to the shooting.
The event was expected to be teeming with festival-goers on Sunday, but instead was roped off with police tape and off-limits to the public. The scene outside the red-brick warehouse, a plaza with trees and picnic tables, was mostly deserted except for police, reporters, and a few people from the neighborhood.
Theresa Brown, 61, a longtime volunteer at the free event, said she was heading to it when she heard what sounded like gunshots and turned around. She said there have been no problems in the past. There were food trucks and a beer stand in the plaza and bands both inside and out, she said.
Earlier in the day, Brown said, “it was a lot of kids enjoying walking around with their family.”
The atmosphere changed by night.
Janel Frink, 40, who grew up in Trenton and now lives in nearby Hamilton Township, said she had intended to go inside the arts festival building, arriving about 12:30 a.m., but got worried by a group of youths running around and the heavy presence of police and ambulances. She said police told her to get out of the way. So she left without seeing any art.
“I could tell something was brewing,” said Frink, who called the festival “one of the greater things that Trenton had going.”
Edward Forchion, 54, said he witnessed two tense moments transpire before shots rang out. First, he saw a group of men having a disagreement inside. Then, after a festival staffer began to close one of the doors, a group of teens, Forchion said, pushed their way inside. It was unclear who initiated the gunfire, he said.
“I was 25 feet away from them,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve been that close to a gunshot, but the air moves. I could feel percussion of the shots.”
Forchion, who captured a graphic video of the aftermath and shared it on Facebook, said he missed the initial shots, but saw police respond soon after.
“Everybody froze like deer in headlights,” he said. “Then everybody started moving.” Forchion described these moments as chaos.
Angelo Nicolo, 41, was sitting on the porch of his home down the street from the festival when he and his brother heard gunshots.
“It’s sad. It really is,” said Nicolo. “Those people had to run for their lives instead of looking at art from local artists.”
Jim Doria visited the arts festival Saturday and said the atmosphere was “different” from that in previous years. He returned Sunday afternoon with his family to lay three bunches of flowers at the edge of the yellow crime-scene tape.
“The vibe was different last night,” Doria said. “It was crowded. I saw a mini altercation break out at one point.”
He fears lasting negative ramifications for a beloved event.
“A lot of people don’t want to come into Trenton because of the violence,” Doria said. “This is one thing they would come into Trenton for. … Now I feel like that’s all going to be in jeopardy.”
This article contains information from the Associated Press.
Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this article misspelled the name of Trenton mayor-elect Reed Gusciora.