ABOVE PHOTO: People embrace after a fatal shooting at Club Blu in Fort Myers, Fla., Monday, July 25, 2016. (Kinfay Moroti/The News-Press via AP)
By Terry Spencer, Tamara Lush and Kelli Kennedy
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Stephanie White clutched a stack of photos while sitting in a chair in her home. The television was on, loud, and turned to the local news. A story came on about the mass shooting at a nightclub that took her baby’s life.
“My son,” said White, tired and dejected Monday afternoon. She waved a hand at the television. “There’s another picture of him.”
Her son was one of two teenagers killed early Monday at Club Blu, the latest in a string of mass shootings across the nation this summer. With the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub still fresh on her mind, White had advised her 18-year-old on what to do if there was a shooting: “Hit the floor; find a table.”
But when gunfire erupted in the parking lot of the Fort Myers club, 18-year-old Stef’an Strawder didn’t have anywhere to hide. He was killed along with a 14-year-old boy. Seventeen people ranging in age from 12 to 27 were wounded during the swimsuit-themed party for teens.
“I told him to look for all the exits if any kind of shooting would go off, to hit the floor, find a table and get out of the way … because I thought about the people in Orlando. That was a big thing,” White told The Associated Press.
Because the shooting happened in the parking lot, “he didn’t have that chance,” she said.
Florida is again reeling from a mass shooting at a nightclub, but instead of being committed by an extremist spouting Islamist ideology, this rampage may have started with an argument about a rap performance. Police have not yet released a motive.
Monday’s shooting was followed by a visit from the governor, makeshift memorials of flowers and prayer vigils.
“It’s difficult to understand and difficult to wrap your brain around,” said Teresa Furlough, an elementary school teacher and the mother of three children, ages 18, 16 and 15, none of whom were at the club. Furlough attended one of three vigils Monday evening.
“We’re pro-life when it comes to certain situations, but we’re not pro-life for every situation,” she said. “These people didn’t respect the sanctity of life.”
The shooting at a venue tucked in a strip mall also left 14-year-old Sean Archilles dead, and a state grappling with another tragedy. The massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub last month killed 49 patrons and wounded dozens.
Fort Myers interim Police Chief Dennis Eads said the shooting was not an act of terrorism. Police detained three people and were searching for others, he added.
In a news release, officials said they investigated two suspicious vehicles near the club in the aftermath of the shooting; one vehicle fled and led officers on a chase, eventually stopping. Two men ran from the car, the release said, and the driver accelerated toward officers, one of whom shot the man in the abdomen. That man, who was treated and released from a hospital, was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and fleeing. Police haven’t said whether the men were involved in the shooting
The chief declined to give a motive for the shooting or discuss details, saying the investigation is ongoing.
The shooting happened about 12:30 a.m. Monday, just as the club was closing and parents were picking up their children.
Security guard Brandy Mclaughlin, who was hired for the event, said she saw someone with a semi-automatic rifle open fire, with the attack sounding like “firecrackers.”
“The rapper was upset, someone not being able to perform,” she said. “It wasn’t targeted, terrorist or gays, or anything like that. It wasn’t a black or white situation. It was an idiot. An idiot with a firearm.”
Club owner Cheryl Filardi, who said she was in the back room when the shots rang out, said at least 10 security guards were hired for the party – two in the parking lot, one or two at the door and the rest floating inside.
She said the club has had four or five teen parties over the past half-dozen years, and this was the second one this summer. She said the parties are something positive for a rough and often-violent neighborhood.
“To be honest with you, every day someone’s getting shot in this area. These days in Lee County, somebody’s always shooting,” Filardi said. “If we do teen parties, we always have a ton of security and we’ve never had a problem.”
State records show this wasn’t the first time violence had broken out at Club Blu.
Department of Business and Professional Regulation records show two separate shootings occurred just outside the club on the same night in May 2015. Two men were each shot in the leg but told police they did not want to press charges.
Although beer posters still hung in its windows, Club Blu’s alcohol license was revoked June 7 because of issues related to its business records, regulators said.
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