CINCINNATI — It was the day Cincinnati became part of a gruesome club no community wants to join.
On Sept. 6, 2018, Omar Enrique Santa-Perez entered Fifth Third Center at 9:06 a.m. holding a 9 mm handgun and opened fire.
The 29-year-old gunman shot 35 rounds in four minutes and 28 seconds, killing three people and gravely wounding two others.
Cincinnati police arrived almost immediately, exchanging gunfire with the shooter. Police reported Santa-Perez down at 9:11 a.m.
Those few minutes were enough to terrify hundreds of people in and around Fifth Third Center and throughout the region.
"The first thing you do is think, 'Oh my God, who's been shot?' And then you think about -- it's come here. These mass shootings, which are more and more common, have now hit us, too," Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said about that day. "Fountain Square is the epicenter of our region, not just our city. So this was an attack on what is the most defining symbol of Cincinnati."
The three men the shooter killed were Prudhvi Raj Kandepi, 25, a consultant at Fifth Third; Richard Newcomer, 64, a superintendent for Gilbane Building Co.; and Luis Felipe Calderón, 48, a manager at Fifth Third.
Brian Sarver and Whitney Austin were shot but survived.
Police never identified a motive. Santa-Perez had no recorded history of violence in Hamilton County. He was arrested once in Broward County, Florida, on charges of brawling in public and resisting arrest.
Twice he attempted to represent himself in lawsuits alleging that major corporations had used his cell phone to gather compromising information and broadcast it to a global audience. Both times, magistrate judges found his claims "rambling, difficult to decipher and (bordering) on the delusional."
Police found no apparent conflict between him and Fifth Third or anyone he shot.
There were many heroes that day.
The dispatcher who gave officers the clear, concise information they needed to approach the gunman safely and smartly.
The four Cincinnati Police Department officers who engaged the gunman and stopped the carnage before he could hurt more people.
The unarmed security guard who risked his own life to usher a man to safety.
A Fifth Third executive who pulled people to safety behind a Dunkin Donuts stand.
First-responders who gave lifesaving aid to the two survivors and tried to help the three men who died.
The medical professionals who treated the injured at University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
And the team who worked with survivors afterwards -- those with and without physical wounds -- offering counsel, support and resources.
Then there's Austin, one of the two people shot who survived. She is determined to turn her trauma into a force for change with Whitney/Strong, a foundation working to reduce deaths by gun violence.
As the one-year anniversary of the shooting approaches, WCPO interviewed nine people about their experiences that day, from first responders to survivors to those who helped in the aftermath.
We hope their stories can further the region's healing.
Whitney Austin – One of two survivors who was shot that day, Austin was a vice president at Fifth Third Bank listening to a conference call when she tried to enter through the revolving door and was knocked down by a barrage of gunfire.
Janetta Cook – Cook was a manager of the Servatii Pastry Shop located at Fifth Third Center when the shooting happened.
Mayor John Cranley – As the mayor of Cincinnati, Cranley arrived on the scene last year as soon as police gave him the all clear to be there.
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac – In early 2018, Isaac insisted that Cincinnati police officers receive hands-on active shooter training. Officers completed the training just weeks before the shooting at Fifth Third.
Merredeth Newman – A victim's practitioner with the Cincinnati Police Department, Newman helped comfort dozens of witnesses and survivors of the shooting in the hours after it happened.
Karen Rumsey – Rumsey manages the witness and survivor advocacy program for the Cincinnati Police Department and continues to provide comfort to survivors of the shooting who reach out to her for support.
Brian Sarver – A team lead for commercial real estate firm CBRE, Sarver works specifically on projects for Fifth Third at its Downtown and Madisonville campuses. He survived being shot in the back that day.
Officer Al Staples – The veteran Cincinnati Police officer was the first person to offer Whitney Austin assistance that day, and she credits him with saving her life.
Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy James York – York was coming out of the Hamilton County Job and Family Services building when he heard reports of an active shooter and ran to his cruiser to respond.
Brian Sarver started his morning with a 9 a.m. meeting about a renovation project in the lobby of Fifth Third Center with Richard Newcomer, a supervisor with Gilbane Building Co., and a man from another company working on the project.
I'm literally standing in a project meeting with two other folks, looking up in the ceiling where we were talking about running some wires and things like that, some work we had to do up in the ceiling. My understanding is he (the shooter) was just kind of sitting in the Pot Belly space just looking out. There's a big glass wall there looking into the Fifth Third lobby. And I guess maybe timing it up, to when he saw enough people there or whatever the case was. So we're just standing there talking, and then I hear a very loud pop. And I knew it was a gun because I've been around guns all my life. I was the first one shot.
Before Sarver even realized he was hit, he dove down a stairwell to his right. He couldn't tell where the shot had come from, but he knew he had to get out of the lobby. His plan was to use his key card to get through a door at the bottom of the stairwell to a secured part of the building. But the card came off his belt as he went down the stairs on his stomach.
I remember at that point, I just said a quick prayer: Oh God, you've got to help me get out of this. Surely this is not the way I'm going to die and be trapped. Because if he would have come around the landing, if he'd have come down the stairs, I would have literally been trapped at the bottom of the stairwell, no way but up to get out of there.
Sarver saw a small window above him and broke it with his elbow, thinking he could shimmy through it to safety. But his left leg was "like Jell-O," he said, and he couldn't climb up.
Then I ended up seeing Rick (Newcomer), the second person that was shot, coming down the stairs. He's kind of hobbling, too, but he is on his feet and coming down the stairs, and he's got his card reader out. So I'm like, thank God Rick's here.
The two men went through the door, shut it behind them and hobbled to the loading dock with their hands in the air shouting, "I've been shot! I've been shot!" so police would know they did not present a threat.
Janetta Cook experienced the shooting from inside the Servatii Pastry Shop located at Fifth Third Center.
When I first heard the first shot, I was actually sitting in our office. I knew it was a gunshot so I immediately got up to get my other two co-workers. That's when I heard more shots. I locked the doors, and we ran back into the office. We seen other people trying to come in. I was trying to hurry and unlock the door to let one of our customers in, but it was kind of too late. We had to lock the door and tell him to run out of the building. He got out safely. We ran into the office and shut the door and kind of put one of our metal file cabinets in front of the door.We heard every gunshot. I was like, please don't let him make it to get into Servatii. Everybody he encountered, I was hoping they were OK. Especially all of the Dunkin girls that we knew. They didn't have anywhere to take cover. They were literally in the lobby.
In the midst of the chaos, Whitney Austin was heading into the lobby. She was wearing headphones as she continued a conference call that she had started in the car on her drive from Louisville.
It was supposed to be any normal day. I spent a lot of time driving from Louisville to Cincinnati to work at the corporate headquarters. I kissed my kids goodbye, and what was a little bit different is they asked me to kiss them twice that day so I obliged. Even though in my head, I thought, "I gotta go, I gotta go, I'm going to be late." And so I got that extra kiss in. I definitely remember walking up to the revolving door and seeing that glass that was still fully intact, but it was shattered. And I thought, well, that's kind of weird. Maybe somebody threw a rock at the door. But that was it. That's all I thought. Then I pushed on the door, and from the moment I pushed on the door is when I was hit by the first barrage of bullets. And they were so forceful and intense that I just dropped. I just collapsed at the bottom of that revolving door.
Austin fell outward, facing Fountain Square and immediately focused on how to survive. She didn't have the strength to pick herself back up. She looked out onto the square, searching for someone to help her, but it was deserted. Then she remembered she was still on the conference call.
They couldn't hear me or what was happening because I had placed it on mute before I started to walk into Fountain Square. But I still tried to move my left arm to get to the phone. And then when I did that is when I got shot the second time by another barrage of bullets. I was in a complete state of despair in that moment. I thought, there's no way out of this situation. I've just been shot again because I tried to help myself out. My only option right now is to play dead and hope that this isn't it and I'm not just going to die right now.
A Cincinnati Police officer called in the shooting to dispatch at 9:07 a.m., according to radio traffic.
Officer: I have some people running up to me saying that there is a shooter at Fifth Third. Dispatcher: Copy. Do you have that address? Officer: I do not. It's just on the square. Dispatcher: I copy. Affirmative. I have a shots run, 511 Walnut St. Report of shots fired inside the building.
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac was on his way into work when he got the call that there was an active shooter on Fountain Square.
I immediately went tearing down the expressway, trying to get to Downtown. I got there shortly after, as people were still being taken out. It's still very vivid. I think that's something that every police officer feels. You get that initial butterfly in your stomach and then you respond. You're ready to go. You want to get there as quickly as you can and offer any help that you can.
Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy James York was walking out of the Hamilton County Job and Family Services building when he heard the call on his radio.
I thought I heard active shooter so I turned my radio up. As I was walking out, I heard active shooter again. So I ran to my cruiser, and I wasn't sure where it was. And then they said it was a the Fifth Third Bank at Walnut so I immediately jumped in, turned on my lights and sirens and went down Central Parkway to Walnut. As I was turning, Officer (Eric) Kaminsky from the Cincinnati Police Department came by. I fell in back of him, and we went straight down there. Every light was green. I pulled over just north of the garage. I got out; I deployed my M16 and linked up with the CPD officers and we went up the steps. And then Eric turned around and said we need to go to the Walnut side to contain him so I just turned around and immediately dropped down and went around to the Walnut side. I started up the steps, I got to the door, grabbed the handle, took a deep breath and then I just, you know, I just figured, you gotta go. So I just went, and I kind of said to myself, "Here we go."
As York entered the building, he saw that Cincinnati police already were engaging the shooter across the lobby from where York was located.
He (the shooter) was running. I went through where the glass was broke. When he came running across the lobby, I couldn't fire because on the other side of him were the Cincinnati officers. And with an M16, I'm not going to take that chance. I was tracking him, and he cleared the last guy. And I got ready to squeeze the trigger, and he fell because they had already stopped the threat. I checked the victim at the elevator, and then I went over and I covered Eric while he got the weapon from underneath the shooter and cuffed him. I stood over the body and was asked by Cincinnati if I could protect the body until everybody got there.
Four Cincinnati police officers engaged the shooter, exchanging gunfire.
Specialist Gregory Toyeas ran past the shooter and shot at him, forcing him to run toward the other officers at the scene.
Officer Jennifer Chilton also shot at Santa-Perez, as did officers Antonio Etter and Eric Kaminsky. Etter left a nearby off-duty detail to respond.
All four were among a group of officers to receive the city's Medal of Valor for their actions that day, and Cranley later named them all Cincinnatian of the Year during his State of the City address.
Officer Al Staples won the Medal of Valor, too, in large part because of how he helped Austin as she lay in that revolving door, wondering whether she would survive. Austin remembers the moment she saw him.
I was coughing up blood. I was in pain, not so much realizing it because I was more ramped up on adrenaline. But I thought, this is it. This is going to be the end of my life. I thought about (my kids), and I thought about my husband. I thought about what would their life be like without me and how difficult would their life be without me. And so that is what I thought about. I have to get home. I have to get home to my children. They need me. My husband needs me. But before that had any time to settle in, that's when Al, Officer Staples, arrived with the Cincinnati Police Department. And I immediately changed gears and transitioned into, I'm not going to die. I'm going to live. And this man is going to get me out of this situation.
Staples had been three or four blocks away when he heard the report of an active shooter. He and another officer were approaching the building from the south when he saw Austin.
He remembers her situation looked dire.
I knew she was hurt bad. Her whole side was full of blood. There was a puddle of blood there on the ground. And she was laying in a bed of glass. When I first saw Whitney, Whitney stopped me and looked at me dead in the eyes and said that, "You have to help me. I'm married, and I have two little ones, and I want to be a mommy again." My first thought was stay down. And then as soon as I heard that one of the threats – because we didn't know how many threats there were – had been stopped, another officer came up, which was Darrin Hoderlein, we picked her up out of it. He actually took my position, and I helped carry her over to a safe spot, which was a marble, large flagpole so I could help render aid, apply pressure. Another officer, Kara Graves, Sgt. Kara Graves, put on a tourniquet until we could get fire there.
Staples said several prayers that morning.
First going in, I'm asking God for protection for all of the officers and for less life to be taken. And, when I saw her, that she makes it after her request to me, looking me dead in the eyes, that I'm a mother, I have two kids, and I want to be a mommy again.
Fire department officials had to be certain the scene was relatively safe before they arrived with emergency medical care. Staples asked Austin if there was anyone she wanted him to call for her, and she asked him to call her husband.
In the confusion of the moment, she gave Staples her own cell phone number before giving him the correct number to call.
I'm trying not to alarm him where he just drops things. But there's been an incident in Cincinnati. Your wife was involved. She was injured. But she's doing OK, and I'll let you talk to her. At that time, she didn't throw no punches.
I could hear Waller on the other end of the phone hysterical with the news, and that is not my husband. He's very stoic. And it was very difficult to hear, and I just shouted let me have the phone – let me talk to him. And I was so focused on surviving and what needed to happen to survive that I said, short and sweet: "I've been shot all over Honey. It hurts so bad. But my heart is beating really strong, and I'm taking deep breaths without a problem, and I know that my brain is working. These are all good things. Just get up here now."
Mayor John Cranley had just dropped off his son at school and was in a meeting with several city councilmen when he began getting texts and calls about the shooting.
They wanted some time to secure the scene. We realized quickly that we needed to go to the scene when it was safe to do so. We were there within 45 minutes probably. In tough times, you know, half of the job is just being there. I think it's hard to really figure out what to say to the public until you've seen the crime scene and really kind of allow the emotion to absorb you in order to be able to articulate to the public how to move forward.
Cranley felt anger, sadness and concern for the victims and their families, he said, but soon focused on praising the quick response of Cincinnati police.
They saved countless lives. I mean, he had lots of ammo. And if he had gotten in the elevator, he could have picked a random floor and killed 50, 60, 100 people. In moments like that, it's easy to be engulfed by depression, anger about the sheer evil in the world. But it's important for us to point out the good, too, and that good was and are our first responders who acted so quickly to save lots and lots of lives.
Once those lives were saved, it was the job of Karen Rumsey and Merredeth Newman to provide comfort, warmth and support from an office building in Queensgate where the police department's criminal investigations and special investigations units are located.
There was a notification over the overhead speaker. They had said that there was a shooting and then from there, people started to be bused in, witnesses and victims, and we just assessed them as best we could with the people who came down here. For some people it's just being there, letting them know their feelings were normal in the situation that had happened.
It's important for us not to, as much as possible, not to have people talk about what happened until they talk to the investigators. It's keeping them as calm as possible, just talking about breathing techniques. They were from all different walks of life. You have people that were working in the Dunkin Donuts, in the Pot Belly, and you had business executives. From all walks of life, all different people that were experiencing this all at the same time but through different lenses. There was a gentleman that didn't talk a lot, but he was real comforting to some of the other ladies. As people were leaving, he took the time to chat with me about how he was feeling. How it took him by surprise and how he had never thought he would experience something like that and how he was feeling bad that he wasn't able to save a friend of his that he was there with that day.
The first bus load brought 35 civilians, filling the sixth-floor roll call room. The room emptied out and then filled again two more times.
Rumsey and Newman lost track of how many people they talked to that day over nearly eight hours.
In the back of my mind, I'm thinking everybody in this room is important because they're going to have the answers for these victims' families.
Rumsey's instinct was to go to the crime scene. She was hopeful that everyone impacted by the shooting had visited with her and Newman that day but found out later that wasn't the case.
In the days that followed, we had a whole team down here from Pot Belly.
It's difficult for some people to understand how lasting that kind of trauma can be and the different impacts it can have, Rumsey said.
Most of the time after the funeral is over and people go back to work, they expect you to pick up and go back to work. And some people don't understand it's not that easy for you to do. There were people that day whose jobs didn't open back up – Dunkin was closed for an entire week. Regular working folks lost salaries that week. With a Victims of Crime grant, we were able to assist some people paying rent.
Recovering from the physical wounds has been more straightforward.
Sarver remembers finally realizing the extent of his injuries once he made it to the loading dock with Newcomer.
I could tell I had pain in the front and the back. The bullet went completely through me. He shot me in the back around the spleen area. It barely missed my lungs so I was kind of lucky in that respect where, I mean, not that I wanted to lose my spleen, but it wasn't a fatal shot at that point.
An ambulance transported Sarver to UC Medical Center.
They did some MRIs on me and told me that I had internal injuries, obviously, and that my spleen was ruptured and they were going to have to do emergency surgery to remove my spleen. Within 10 to 15 minutes of arriving to the hospital, I was in emergency surgery.
Austin remembers her trip in the ambulance as "a wild ride."
I remember bouncing all over the place, but I know they wanted to save me so do whatever you need to save me. A-OK with me. I didn't actually have surgery until the next day because I was so stable that they could wait to operate on my right arm. I was shot 12 times, and the first several hours were spent exploring my body, where are they, let's make sure we assess every entry point, every exit point. And that's where things start to get real blurry for me. I remember for sure asking every person I encountered, am I going to live? I have a five and a seven year old, and I need to be their mother. And everybody said, "You're doing great. Just keep doing what you're doing." That was frustrating. I wanted them to tell me. But they wouldn't. At some point I got comfortable enough, probably with pain medication, to let go and think, "I'm going to survive." I don't know if I did that after I heard, "You've been shot 12 times, but not one hit a major organ or artery." Not sure exactly of the sequence. But I remember just finally releasing myself into a well needed nap.
Sarver had recovered enough physically to return to work part-time in January and full-time earlier this year.
He still has PTSD from the shooting, which surprises him a bit. Loud noises startle him more easily, and he doesn't like to have people behind him at church or the movies or anywhere when he's out in public.
The first time he returned to Fifth Third Center was a Sunday. He got a colleague to let him in when the building was closed and quiet so he could see how it affected him. He decided he could go back.
I looked at it like the shooting changed my life forever, but why should I go find another job because of it? I look at it as kind of fighting back the evil. Just go return and not let it change my life any more than it has. Fighting back in a sense. Maybe I'm kind of stubborn. I don't know.
Austin had multiple surgeries to repair damage to her arms and continues to do follow-up physical therapy.
She decided to leave her job in Fifth Third in May so she could focus full-time on her Whitney/Strong foundation.
I have been shot 12 times, and I can walk, and I can do nearly everything that I did before. It just doesn't make any sense, which is why I do Whitney/Strong. I will never make sense of it. So if you cannot make sense of it, then what do you do when you've been given a huge, massive gift, you have to pay it forward. And that's what Whitney/Strong is for me. It is paying it forward, doing everything that I can to ensure that people are not in this same position, whether it's a mass shooting, whether it's domestic violence, accidental death, street violence, I don't care what it is.
Austin continues to get regular psychological counseling and encourages other survivors to do the same.
I spend a good amount of time thinking about the number of people who were involved on September 6 that I just don't know, that weren't physically wounded but were emotionally wounded. I think about the people that were piled on top of each other behind the Dunkin Donuts counter, I think about the businessmen and women that were in their offices in the many towers that surround the Fifth Third tower. It doesn't matter if you were shot or not, you were impacted forever by that moment. And I don't know how many of those people give themselves the grace and the permission to get the therapy that they need to get better and to heal after that situation.
Not everyone can get that kind of counseling, Rumsey said. So she and Newman keep in touch with survivors, especially those without physical scars.
Just keeping those lines of communication open lets folks know that it's OK to ask for help. If that were me, I would want somebody to have that goodwill and check on me. One man who was in the Fifth Third Center lobby at the time of the shooting got in touch after what happened in Dayton. He said, "I thought about all those people in that one spot, and that's all I could see, I was in Fifth Third again. I was in Dunkin Donuts, people cowering around me, and then seeing my friends." Folks are really resilient. He said that nothing to that magnitude had ever touched him. It shook people's foundation of what we felt was safe. We go to these places every day, and we don't expect something horrific to happen. We hear about it. But until it's at your door, it's a totally different ballgame.
Cook still has vivid memories of that morning.
The scariest part was the aftermath, like seeing everybody that got hurt and hearing about it. Just seeing the aftermath, people laying on the ground. To see the lady laying on the wall and seeing all the glass that was shattered and coming to the realization that I made it. I made it through to see another day.
Her life continues to be impacted, though. The Servatii location where Cook worked closed down in December. The company offered her a position at a different location, but that didn't work out for her. Now Cook works at a check-cashing business, where she earns less.
I kind of was forced to find another job. I was used to making this certain kind of money. I'm struggling now. I don't make as much as I was making at Servatii. I deal with that, and I'm still dealing with that to this day. That's what makes it so hard. Trying to maintain with two kids. But I have a family that is amazing. We're making it.
Austin has made Whitney/Strong her life's work.
She believes there are common-sense ways to reduce gun violence that don't infringe on the rights of people to own firearms.
Long-term my goal is to have a movement that is inclusive. So when you think about all of the different people, all of the different thoughts, all of the different ideas out there about fighting gun violence, I think one of the things that's missing is an inclusive message. In many ways, I think that's why states like Kentucky and states like Ohio, even our federal government has been stalled in terms of making progress. This is not just about one political party. This is not just about pulling together non-gun owners that have no qualms about removing firearms from our country. This is about pulling everybody into the conversation. So I want just as many Democrats and Republicans represented as I want gun owners and non-gun owners. And if you pull everybody into the conversation then you start to settle in on solutions I think everybody can get behind. I definitely think that gun culture has changed. In fact, the best example I always give - extreme risk protection orders. That's the bill that I'm trying to get passed in Kentucky and Ohio and when I get into conversations with people regarding their views on guns, oftentimes they're not willing, if they are very, very staunch supporters of the Second Amendment, they aren't willing to have an open dialogue around that solution which I think is unfair. I think there is a ton of common ground there.
Cranley said he hopes the recent back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton will result in legislative change, too.
He's also trying a different approach, working with other cities to leverage their buying power and encourage "smart gun" technology.
What we want is to consolidate our buying power, our consumer power, for research and development into smart gun technology. The product's not ready yet, but somebody there will be a gun that can only be fired by the owner of that gun. And that does a lot of good things. You couldn't steal a cop's gun and use it against them. The tragedy of suicide within families that own a gun, that's an epidemic. If guns could only be fired by the owner, that would also reduce the availability of guns for suicide. Our normal everyday shootings, which are far too high, are used by illegal guns that are stolen or lost. Right now the NRA is blocking and fighting even doing the research to bring these kinds of technologies to bear.So we want to use our collective buying power to provide incentives to the gun manufacturers to at least invest in this kind of technology that would make guns safer.
Staples wants to see changes in the "no-snitching" culture that makes it more difficult for police to catch perpetrators and prevent gun violence.
I appreciate Whitney doing Whitney/Strong. Whitney/Strong is trying to do something. But now we all need to be our own name strong, I think, to reach out and touch somebody else.
This Sept. 6, a year after the shooting, Austin is holding a gala in Louisville to raise money and awareness for her foundation.
Cranley will be traveling but said he plans to check in with Austin and friends at Fifth Third.
Rumsey thought about rallying social workers throughout the city to organize something on Fountain Square that morning at the exact time of last year's shooting.
Then she worried that might be too much for people like the man who called her after the Dayton shooting and all the others who re-live their trauma with every horrific story of gun violence.
As of right now, I think just leaving a note that we remember will honor those people that lost their loved ones that day in addition to honoring those people who got up and went back to work when the building reopened.That's important to me. Maybe about 9 o'clock. Just me. I'll leave the wreath. And not only will it say, "We remember," but we'll put our number on the back of the card and leave some cards strategically in the Fifth Third Center. Just to let people know that we're still here.
-- 9 On Your Side Anchor Tanya O'Rourke and Photographer Terry Helmer contributed to this report.