By Bob Uphues
North Riverside officials and police command staff will meet with management of the North Riverside Park Mall on June 25 to address recent violent incidents there, including multiple fights and two shootings, including one inside the shopping center on the afternoon June 21 that left a man in his 20s wounded.
Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., whose wife was shopping for a Father's Day gift for him inside J.C. Penney when police began locking down the mall as they aided the shooting victim and searched for the shooter, said in a phone interview on Monday that "everything was on the table" in terms of stopping repeat incidents.
"Whether it's metal detectors or limiting entrances, I'm not sure, but it's just not acceptable to have someone inside the mall with a gun," Hermanek said. "Times have changed, unfortunately, and every option is on the table."
On Monday afternoon, Hermanek sought to reassure North Riverside residents that the village was acting to stop the violent incidents by sending out an Everbridge emergency notification to all residents.
"The events of yesterday have not gone unnoticed by village officials," Hermanek said in the notification. "I assure you that this type of criminal behavior will not be tolerated or allowed. I have directed our police command staff to work with mall security and develop a proactive plan to make sure these crimes do not reoccur.
"Our mall, which is now open, is a staple of North Riverside and should be a safe and enjoyable place to visit and shop."
Harvey Ahitow, general manager of North Riverside Park Mall, said that as the shopping center reopened its doors to the public on June 12 after being closed for almost three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had hired additional security guards in light of the looting and deadly shooting at the mall on May 31.
Armed off-duty police officers had been hired to bolster the security presence at the mall, said Ahitow, and more will be hired in light of the June 21 shooting.
"We're going to put more off-duty police here for the next couple of weeks to see where this thing is going," said Ahitow. "I've been here for 12 years, and I haven't seen this before."
While North Riverside police have released little information about the June 21 shooting, the mayor's notification to residents indicated that police believe the victim was targeted and likely gang-related.
The shooting victim appears to have sustained non-life threatening injuries, and police attempted to interview him, said Hermanek, but he was uncooperative. At least two other witnesses police interviewed were also uncooperative, Police Chief Carlos Garcia told the Landmark on Sunday.
No one has been taken into custody for the June 21 shooting, which took place on the lower-level of the mall outside Kicks and Fits, a shoe store near J.C. Penney on the south end of the shopping center.
There is no indication that the shooting was related to the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old man outside Olive Garden on the mall property on the afternoon of May 31, amid a looting spree there that was part of a wave of national unrest in the days following the death of George Floyd.
That shooting, caught on surveillance video, appeared to be an execution. The gunman fired multiple shots at the victim, who fell as he ran from his assailant, at close range. That case remains under investigation and no one has been taken into custody.
In the days just prior to the June 21 shooting, however, there were other troubling violent incidents. Police responded to at least three fights on consecutive days, from June 17-19.
On June 17, police issued local ordinance citations to three boys, ages 13, 14 and 15, for their involvement in a fight at about 7:15 p.m. involving two groups of juveniles near the entrance to the mall food court.
The following day, North Riverside charged a 19-year-old woman with battery and disorderly conduct after she allegedly punched a 25-year-old woman in the face after the victim made a comment about the offender almost knocking into her daughter on an escalator.
On June 19 at about 1:40 p.m., police and paramedics responded to the mall for a fight that left a 27-year-old man's nose bloodied. Police cited a 21-year-old man for disorderly conduct, while mall security issued him and the victim notices banning them from the mall property. They also banned a 26-year-old man who also allegedly was involved in the fight.
Ahitow said that at least one of the two fights involving the male offenders was related to the May 31 shooting, though the Landmark could not get that confirmed by North Riverside officials.
Since the mall has reopened, Ahitow said, officials there have noticed a "different crowd" coming to the shopping center.
"It been much more challenging, for sure," Ahitow said. "It seems like these are individuals who are not necessarily coming to the mall to look for trouble, but they're running into people from the neighborhood that they've had issues with."