ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Cottonwood Mall was business as usual Sunday, a big difference from the scary situation that happened Saturday night.
Police said they deployed a couple hundred officers to the scene at around 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Officers took 32-year-old Lee Barela into custody and he is facing attempted robbery charges. Investigators said they are still searching for the female suspect who witnesses said had a gun.
Police said after the initial investigation, they determined that no shots were fired, but said they treated it very much like an active shooter situation.
In cell phone video taken from inside the mall, we see Barela surrounded by security officers and seconds later – panic.
“There was a girl who was waving around a 9-millimeter gun,” said Amanda Perez, a witness.
“Like a crowd of people, running and screaming,” said a mall employee.
The Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office said they responded to Cottonwood Mall after receiving a flood of reports.
“Someone busting in, screaming, with a gun inside the mall,” said Officer Simon Drobik, Albuquerque Police Department.
A couple hundred officers were deployed to the scene and police placed the mall on lockdown for several hours.
“Our response was massive,” said Ofc. Drobik. “We absolutely don’t treat these things lightly, we treat them like an active shooter.”
So what happened inside the mall leading up to the lockdown?
“He approached a kiosk, which was a jewelry store. Started to attempt a shoplifting,” said Ofc. Drobik.
According to the criminal complaint, Barela attempted to steal a gold chain necklace from the Piercing Pagoda kiosk, but the employee tried to stop him.
“He tried to take the item by force and maced either the manager or some other employee,” said Ofc. Drobik.
Then police said Barela was tackled to the ground and taken into custody. But they said there was a second suspect — a female with a gun.
“Brandished a weapon and threatened mall security,” said Ofc. Drobik.
Witnesses said they heard people screaming and it was pure chaos.
“Somebody shouted that there was a gun,” said Tobias St. James, a witness. “Gates started slamming down.”
“It was like a movie to see everybody take off running,” said Perez.
Investigators said Barela’s female armed partner-in-crime also made a run for it. Soon after police arrived on scene.
“Basically store to store searching, if anybody is left inside,” said Ofc. Drobik.
And officers escorted people to safety.
“Happy to be alive,” said St. James.
A shopper who was locked down inside Spencer’s with the jewelry kiosk employee who was maced told KRQE News 13 the victim was very shaken up, but fortunately, she was wearing glasses and did not suffer any major injuries.
According to his arrest record, turns out Barela was already a wanted man for drug-related charges, he remains behind bars at MDC.
Police have not released any description or surveillance of the woman he was with.