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Shots fired at Toys R Us in Palm Desert; 2 dead

November 28, 2008 |  1:45 pm

Shots rang out today inside a Toys R Us store in Palm Desert, killing two and causing shoppers at the busy store to scramble for cover.

Palm Desert Councilman Bob Spiegel told The Times that based on early reports, two rival groups shopping at the store had some kind of argument and then shots were fired. Two men were killed in the exchange of gunfire, he said.

Sara Frahm, 25, of La Quinta was shopping for electronic toys at the time of the shooting. She told The Times she heard two women fighting and swearing in an aisle next to her. She said employees went to break up the fight and that all of the sudden a number of people yelled, "He has a gun!" She said she heard six or seven shots.

Mike Stitt of Yucca Valley was shopping with his wife and two children when he saw two women fighting and calling each other names. Both were with men. One of the men pulled out a gun and shot it in the air, then shot the other man in the back, Stitt told The Times.

In a statement, Toys R Us stressed that the shooting appeared to stem from a "personal dispute."

"We are outraged by the act of violence that occurred this afternoon in Palm Desert, CA, and by the fact that anyone would compromise the safety and security of our customers and employees," the statement said. "Our understanding is that this act seems to have been the result of a personal dispute between the individuals involved. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to associate the events of today with Black Friday."

Riverside County sheriff and fire officials responded to a report of the shooting at 11:32 a.m. at the toy store in the Desert Crossing Shopping Center at 72314 Highway 111, said Cheri Patterson, information officer for the Riverside County Fire Department and Cal Fire, based in Perris.

Dennis Gutierrez of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department confirmed the fatalities but said detectives were still trying to figure out what happened. He said no arrests have been made and no weapons have been recovered.

"This was an incident between these two individuals," he said.

Details about the shooting were still spotty, but witnesses said the scene at the store and nearby businesses was chaotic.

"We had a bunch of people who came in around noon," Jeff Valare, manager at the World Gym across the street from the Toys R Us, told The Times. "They looked distressed. One woman had an infant in her arms and was crying. They were telling us they heard five or six gunshots. They were inside the Toys R Us and fled out the back."

Glenn Splain, another worker at the gym, told the Associated Press that some Toys R Us customers "were crying, tearing and shaking. ... Some people got into a fight. ... One of the guys here thought it was over a toy, but it got louder and louder and then there were gunshots."

Saul Diaz, who works as an assistant manager at the Jiffy Lube next door to the Toys R Us, said he was speaking with a customer when a stampede of 45 people ran in. Some looked distraught, some were crying.

"They were running fast, straight into the car bays. There was a couple of ladies with little kids, about 3 years [old]. They were all pale. The kids were shouting, 'Mom, I'm scared.' We immediately closed the store," Diaz told The Times. His staff locked the front doors and closed the car bays. "We took everyone into a basement bay, where we keep inventory," he said.

The Desert Sun quoted a Palm Desert city official as saying the shooting might have been caused by bad blood between two groups of shoppers. "There were two groups inside that had issue with each other," said Assistant City Manager Sheila Gilligan. "And the two men inside pulled their weapons and shot each other."

Daniel Watson told KPSP-TV that his wife was shopping at the store and called him on her cellphone about the time the shooting began. "She was scared, you know, and she told me to tell the kids that she loved them," Watson said. He told the station that his wife hid under a clothes rack.

-- Michelle Maltais, Richard Winton, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Andrew Blankstein

VIDEO: Video of the shooting scene from KESQ-TV.

PHOTOS: Photo gallery of the shooting scene from The Desert Sun.