Brad and Trudy Watts

Brad and Trudy Watts of Lexington, seen here during a visit to the Columbus Zoo in 2020, were in the Polaris Fashion Mall on Wednesday during a shooting incident. (Submitted photo)

COLUMBUS -- It was supposed to be a simple shopping visit to the Polaris Fashion Place after a routine medical exam.

Instead, a shooting incident inside the mall early Wednesday afternoon had a Lexington couple and their daughter sheltering in place inside the backroom of the Pink store for two and a half hours.

No one was injured during the 12:30 p.m. shooting, which was triggered by a disagreement between two Columbus men.

But it will be an afternoon that Brad and Trudy Watts and their daughter, Autumn, will never forget.

After leaving the hospital, the trio decided to make a stop at the mall for Autumn and then planned to visit one of Brad's favorite bookstores on U.S. 23 before heading home.

They made the purchase at Pink, on the mall's second level, and were just exiting the store when they heard a loud boom -- followed by more booms directly below them on the lower level.

"It sounded like a folding table falling over onto its back," said Brad Watts, 50. "Then we heard a number of booms. It took a few seconds for people to realize what was happening and then and it was pandemonium with people running everywhere."

Trudy Watts, 49, said she yelled at her husband, who said he didn't immediately move after the gunshots. The couple said store employees pushed them and Autumn, 12, back inside the store and then into the long, narrow backroom it shares with Victoria's Secret, closing the gates to the store.

"The employees had apparently been trained (for such emergencies)," Brad Watts said. "They knew what to do."

The trio and customers from both stores were kept inside the storeroom until they were allowed out by Columbus SWAT team members, who directed them to their car in the mall parking lot. They didn't arrive back at their Otterbein Drive home until just after 5 p.m.

"We learned that police cleared the lower level, store by store, before coming to the upper level," said Trudy Watts, 49. "Our daughter was very upset (during the incident). She started hyperventilating and crying. We were able to calm her down. It was frightening."

According to media reports,  two off-duty Columbus police officers working as security at the mall heard the shots and radioed for assistance.

A story on WDTN.com said the mall was completely cleared as of 3:30 p.m. and it was believed two suspects had left the area, according to Columbus police spokesperson Sgt. James Fuqua.

Police said nobody was injured in the shooting, which Fuqua said was the result of a domestic dispute, the TV station reported, adding a gun was found in the parking lot.

Columbus police have identified two suspects wanted in connection with the incident, but Fuqua said their information will not be released to the public at this time, according to the WDTN.

“We can now say that we have identified both suspects that are involved in this,” said Fuqua, encouraging the men to turn themselves into authorities.

“We know that there are many people in this community who know who both of these individuals are and we know all of this started as a domestic dispute between known parties.”

Fuqua then “strongly encouraged” the two men to turn themselves in.

“We have all the information that we need to determine who you are and we’re going to give you the opportunity to turn yourself in publicly or privately before we publicly put out who you are,” Fuqua said. “We would like to have this resolved as quickly as possible.”

Columbus police were assisted by the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office in searching and securing the mall.

Fuqua said two different weapons appear to have been used during the incident. Shell casings were recovered from the scene, according to the Columbus station's website report.

As they thought back on the incident, the couple realized how dangerous the situation could have been.

"We were right beside the railing and we heard shell casings hitting the floor right beneath us. It was loud," Brad Watts said. "If it had been a few seconds later, we would have seen the guys doing the shooting."

The couple said Autumn had recovered enough when they got home to begin calling her friends to tell them what had happened.

"We're fine now that we're 50 miles away from that," Brad Watts said, adding they decided to bypass the half-price bookstore after the mall incident.

"It's one of my favorite bookstores," he said with a laugh. "I love to read about history."

But instead of reading about history, the Lexington family nearly witnessed some on Wednesday afternoon. Thankfully, it had a safe ending for everyone.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"

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