July 14, 2024

EXCLUSIVE: Dayton shooting eyewitness describes seeing bodies drop around her and trying to help victim who died

Jamila McNichols, sister of slain mass shooting victim Thomas “TJ” McNichols, mourns beside a memorial near the scene of the crime, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

August 5, 2019, Dayton, Ohio — On any other Saturday, Dayton-native Keshia Thomas, 33 would be hanging out with her cousins on the westside at the Elks Club, Napoleon or Club Aces, but last Saturday, the group decided to do something different. They ventured to the city’s Oregon District, which many consider to be the safer part of town where popular clubs and bars boast a diverse clientele of college kids and millennials in their 20s and 30s.

“There have been so many shooting in the urban areas, we just felt that it would be safer to go to a place where people didn’t have to carry guns,” said Thomas.

But once they drove in front of local hot spot, Ned Peppers around 12:15 a.m., Thomas said the group immediately noticed 15 to 20 police officers in the area, just huddled around and chatting. It was something she thought unusual because it was still pretty early and a good crowd hadn’t yet formed.

READ MORE: Six of the nine victims in Dayton, Ohio shooting were Black

Shortly after, Thomas and her friends decided to move across the street to another bar, Newcom’s Tavern, where she says there were better drinks, and where they could sit and enjoy the music.

It wasn’t long before she heard the first shots.

“They were rapid because the DJ even turned down the music and then immediately turned it back up. We thought the shots were coming from the speakers,” she remembers. “Then we heard them again. It happened so quickly—gun shots, glass breaking and people screaming ‘help me’ from outside.”

Chaos ensues in the Oregon District

Thomas and the rest of the country would eventually learn that 24-year old, Connor Betts,  wielded the assault-style rifle that killed nine people and wounded 27 others in less than a minute. Betts killed his sister, Megan Betts, and wounded a companion who sat in a car with her. He then tried to run into Ned Peppers, but was shot and killed by police before inflicting any further damage.

This undated photo provided by the Dayton Police Department shows Connor Betts. The 24-year-old masked gunman in body armor opened fire early Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in a popular entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio. (Dayton Police Department via AP)

Along with Megan Betts, the other victims killed include mother of two, including a newborn, Lois L. Oglesby, 27; father and brother, Derrick R. Fudge, 57; machinist, Logan Turner, 30; graduate student Nicholas P. Cumer, 25; father of four, Thomas J. McNichols, 25; mother Beatrice N. Warren-Curtis, 36; Eritrean native, Saeed Saleh, 38; and described as everyone’s best friend, Monica E. Brickhouse, 39.

Six of those shot and killed are Black, and three are white, but investigators are reluctant to call the shooting racially motivated until they know more.

For Thomas, time stood still during the shooting. She found her way to the alley next to the bar and hid behind a trash can. Bodies were scattered in front of her.

“There was a white lady laying dead and a white man laying on his stomach,” said Thomas.

As a certified nursing assistant, she felt the need to help. The first person she got to was 38-year old, Saeed Saleh.

READ MORE: Seven people shot and wounded at west side Chicago park

“I checked his pulse and it was faint. I tried to give him chest compressions. I couldn’t fully give him CPR because blood was coming out of his mouth. I remember a Black police officer giving me gloves while I was helping the man, but there were no other cops out. There were so many people wounded. I saw three bodies just laying dead in the alley just a few feet from where I was helping Saeed.”

Shoes are piled outside the scene of a mass shooting including Ned Peppers bar, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Several people in Ohio have been killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours, and the suspected shooter is also deceased, police said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Once Thomas felt it was safe enough to come out of the alleyway, she says all she saw was just devastation and the sound of people, still ducking down, crying and screaming for help. She had no idea if Connor Betts was the only threat in the area.

READ MORE: Donald Trump condemns ‘racism, bigotry and white supremacy’ in wake of Texas and Ohio mass shootings

Police officials report that Betts wore a mask, body armor, and used a high-capacity magazine capable of holding 100 rounds. They found a shotgun in his car and determined that both guns were purchased legally, which has only resurfaced the debate on developing a comprehensive gun control plan in the country.

Politicizing the moment 

While Democrats and Republicans remain divided amidst the tragedy on national gun control laws, Dayton’s clergy and community leaders are planning for a series of vigils mourning those who died in what is being called an act of domestic terrorism.

Bodies are removed from at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Several people in Ohio have been killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours, and the suspected shooter is also deceased, police said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Groups of pastors were dispatched to the city’s Convention Center, which has been set up to be a hub of information for the families who are still trying to make peace with Sunday’s events.

READ MORE: Gun control activists marching 50 miles to Smith & Wesson HQ

Pastor Mila Cooper of Wayman A.M.E. Church in Dayton responded to the many calls from parishioners and other clergy looking for answers.

“Most of the clergy were in worship with their flock and families Sunday morning so we haven’t really had time to process and plan an official reaction to this tragedy,” said Cooper.

Was this a hate crime?

Although there has been no official evidence that the mass shooting was racially motivated, Pastor Cooper, CEO of Dayton’s Coretta Scott King Center for Nonviolence, believes that Dayton Police Chief, Richard Biehl need not look very far to see what is happening here. 

“The fact that six of the nine victims were African American says volumes about this incident,” said Cooper.

Family members of slain mass shooting victim Thomas “TJ” McNichols, from left, Donna Johnson, aunt, and sisters Jamila and Finesse McNichols, mourn beside a memorial near the scene of the shooting Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

“People are asking and want answers from the police department on the motivation behind these killings. The struggle is real for both believers and the non believers. For the believers, I’d just say, God is who he is and what happened last night is a manifestation of the evil that we’ve been fighting for centuries. I believe that God is on the side of justice. For the non-believers, I’d say, check in on each other. Check on your family and loved ones and get the help you need for the trauma that we’re all dealing with on a daily basis.”

READ MORE: Chicago has deadly weekend with 52 people shot, 8 fatalities

As Thomas tries to put the pieces of what happened Sunday morning in her head, she’s still in shock. She keeps replaying the image of hundreds of people scrambling to find safety, screaming, falling and dying in front of her, looping it over and over again in her mind.

 “It was like we were at war out there. This has become the worst day of my life.”

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