Several shot, one killed at Art All Night in Trenton
A 24-hour celebration that showcases local artists became the Wild West early Sunday morning amidst a fight inside a warehouse.
One person was killed and numerous others were injured in a shootout that happened at the Art All Night (AAN) celebration in the Roebling Market section of the city. Officials say approximately 1,000 people were at the event, with a large number of them hanging outside the warehouse.
“When we got here around 2:30, it didn’t look like we were coming to Art All Night,” city resident Franco Roberts said. “It looked like we were outside of a Philadelphia club after the bar closes and people who don’t want to leave are standing around their cars smoking and drinking.”
Roberts and his girlfriend had a feeling something bad was going to happen because there were “more people outside than in the warehouse” and no music was playing inside, he said.
“There’s usually a lot of noise and a lot of music but there was none of that,” Roberts, who has attended AAN for the past four years, said. “Someone told us they were shutting down the whole building. Then we turned around and saw people squaring up to fight.”
And that’s when gunshots rang out.
“I saw two punches and then heard several gunshots,” Roberts said.
Roberts said chaos ensued as people fled from the building. He and other witnesses did not know exactly how many people fired shots, but they say it sounded as if there was more than one gunman.
“Everybody ran toward the door,” he said. “And the people fighting got mixed with the crowd that was running and they went out the door shooting.”
Officials say prior to the shooting there were numerous physical altercations that took place both inside and outside the warehouse, prompting police to shut down the event.
“There was a report that the mood inside the venue had been changing,” Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri said at a press conference Sunday. “Those individuals, however, continued to loiter and additional fights broke out. Then the shooting occurred.”
Authorities say off- and on-duty police in the area fired their service weapons as the suspects fled the building while shooting at each other.
“The impetus for police returning fire were the individuals shooting at each other,” Onofri said. “Many of the event organizers have been praising the Trenton Police Department, and frankly if it wasn’t for their quick and decisive response, I think we’d be talking about more victims.”
Tahaij Wells, 32, died at the hospital after suffering gunshot wounds during the melee. Officials say he was one of the suspects exchanging gunfire with others inside the warehouse before running outside. Though ballistics tests have not been completed, investigators believe he was shot by a cop after police saw him engaged in the shootout.
Wells was recently released from prison and had been on parole since February on homicide-related charges, Onofri said.
At least 17 people were struck by gunfire, including a 13-year-old boy who was initially hospitalized in extremely critical condition. At an evening press conference officials said the teen’s condition had been upgraded to stable. A total of 22 people were taken to the hospital to treat injuries sustained during the incident.
Besides Wells, two of those victims are suspected gunmen. Amir Armstrong, 23, was listed in stable condition as of press time, and another suspect whose name was not released remained in critical condition Sunday night. Armstrong has been charged with a weapons offense in connection with the shootout, according to prosecutors.
Authorities say other suspects remain on the run.
Police sources who spoke on condition of anonymity say more than 70 shell casings were found at the scene following the shooting, and that multiple weapons were recovered, including one equipped with a high-capacity magazine.
Law enforcement sources believe the fight and subsequent shooting was the result of ongoing beef between rival street crews. Social media posts suggests there was chatter about the shooting more than 15 hours before it actually happened. Danielle Grady posted a Facebook status update around 11:25 a.m. Saturday that said:
“Please please DO NOT GO TO ART ALL NIGHT! THEY WILL BE SHOOTING IT UP!”
“In Trenton, most of our conflicts are a result of neighborhood feuding,” Police Director Earnest Parrey Jr. told reporters, adding that most of the guns used in capital city violence are trafficked into Trenton from other municipalities.
A victim who suffered abrasions while being trampled by stampeding witnesses said he wasn’t surprised that something violent happened after seeing the crowd of people partying in the parking lot as opposed to viewing art and enjoying music inside the warehouse.
“When I first got here I said to myself, ‘This is not an art crowd,’” the victim said as he pointed to empty bottles of Remy Martin and blunt wrappers littering the ground. “This was the type of crowd you normally see at the Getty Gas station late at night: you know, younger guys trying to peacock. Some of them took pictures of the art as if it was more of a joke. They were not appreciators of art. We have to raise these kids better. People wonder why stuff like this happens and it’s because the kids aren’t raised the right way.”
The Roebling Market parking lot was covered in trash, broken glass and liquor bottles Sunday as police processed the scene for evidence. Regular patrons of AAN say the event is usually cleaner than what was seen in the aftermath of the shooting.
Now in its 12th year, Art All Night is a 24-hour art and entertainment event that’s held annually on the third weekend in June. In past years, tens of thousands of people attended the event, which showcases work from local artists. The celebration was scheduled to continue into Sunday afternoon, but it was shut down due to the violence.
Officials say no metal detectors were used to check people for weapons before entering the historic Roebling Wire Works factory building where most of the art is showcased during the event.
Mayor Eric Jackson, who has less than two weeks left in office, said he met with event organizers months in advance and discussed security. Jackson said all parties decided to have additional police officers on scene in addition to security provided by AAN personnel. He said they decided to increase the police presence at the event this year because the “crowd grows every year,” but said he had no knowledge of a specific threat prior to the shooting.
Irving Higginbotham, who is related to West Ward councilwoman-elect Robin Vaughn, suffered four gunshot wounds to the leg. Vaughn said current city officials failed to protect the residents of Trenton.
“As leaders of the city, we should leverage some of the recommendations (regarding safety in public spaces) that come from other law enforcement agencies,” Vaughn said via phone.
Jackson said his administration has been working to stem violent crime.
“This is truly a tragedy for Trenton,” Jackson said at a press conference Sunday morning after the incident. “All shootings, whether large or small, are a crisis. It’s a fact that our cities, as well as our suburbs, throughout America are experiencing an increase in public shootings and public unrest. This isn’t some random act of violence; this is a public health issue. We are working cooperatively and collaboratively with parents and law enforcement to end this violence in the city of Trenton.”
Ernie Rivas, who owns a store located in Roebling Market, said the shooting ruined Father’s Day. He said he was at a beach house with family when he received a call about the incident, and that he rushed into Trenton as soon as he could.
“This is affecting my business very much,” Rivas said as he pointed to trash covering the parking lot. “You can see a difference from last year. This is out of control filthy. I found bottles of wine and beer all over the ground in front of my store.”
Mayor-elect Reed Gusciora said public safety is at the top of his priority list when he is sworn into office next month.
“We must do all we can to make our neighborhoods and streets safe for Trenton residents and our visitors,” Gusciora said in a written statement. “I hope that Art All Night does continue but we are going to have to reevaluate security measures in the future. It will be a top priority of my administration to make Trenton a safer city.”
Joe Kuzemka, the director of Art All Night, declined to comment by phone and referred media inquiries to a statement released on the event’s Facebook page.
“It’s with great regret that we announce that the remainder of Art All Night has been cancelled due to a tragic incident that occurred overnight,” the statement said. “We’re still processing much of this and we don’t have many answers at this time but please know that our staff, our volunteers, our artists and musicians all seem to be healthy and accounted for. Our sincere, heartfelt sympathies are with those who were injured…We’re very shocked. 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.”
Detectives are also investigating an attempted carjacking that happened in the aftermath of the shooting in an alley near Dye Street. Officials say three people were in a car when a male approached the vehicle and “may or may not have” pointed a gun at the occupants before fleeing on foot.
The shooting is being investigated by the Mercer County Homicide Task Force. Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call police at 609-989-6406.