Deadly New Jersey birthday party shooting was a ‘targeted attack’: Officials

(BRIDGETON, N.J.) — A mass shooting at an outdoor birthday party at a southern New Jersey home that left two people dead and 12 injured was a targeted attack, officials said on Monday.

A massive search for unidentified assailants continued Monday morning in Cumberland County, where a barrage of gunfire broke out at a large home in Bridgeton, New Jersey, near Fairfield, just before midnight on Saturday, prompting party revelers to dive for cover or run for their lives.

“This was not a random act of violence. This was a targeted attack,” New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said at a news conference.

Cumberland County prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said one person has been arrested. She identified the suspect in custody as Kevin K. Dawkins, 36, of Bridgeton, and that he has been charged with unlawful possession of a weapon, unlawful possession of a large capacity ammunition magazine, and possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes. She said Dawkins is being held at the Cumberland County Jail.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Web-McRae declined to say if Dawkins is suspected of firing a weapon during the birthday party shooting in Bridgeton. It’s unknown if the suspect has legal representation at this time.

Col. Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said multiple weapons and shell casings were found at the shooting scene and that more arrests are anticipated.

Gurbir identified the two people fatally shot as 30-year-old Kevin Elliott and 25-year-old Asia Hester, both of Bridgeton.

Webb-McRae said the 12 people wounded in the shooting ranged in age from 19 to 35, and that several remain in grave condition at hospitals.

One partygoer who described himself as Hester’s uncle told ABC station WPVI in Philadelphia that his niece was “a good girl” and he is “absolutely heartbroken.”

Aerial video from WPVI’s helicopter showed evidence of the chaos that erupted, with tents and chairs toppled and debris strewn across the property.

A motive for the shooting remains under investigation, Callahan said. He asked anyone with information about the episode to contact state investigators immediately.

Police officers were seen combing through a cemetery across the street from the home where the shooting occurred and an adjacent wooded area.

“The state troopers who arrived at the scene didn’t know if someone was waiting in the woods to ambush them as they responded to the calls, neither did the paramedics who came to tend to the wounded,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at Monday’s news conference. “Thankfully, by that time the shooting had stopped.”

Callahan said that prior to the shooting, state troopers were called to investigate noise complaints at another house party in Bridgeton. He said that party broke up around 11 p.m. Saturday and some attendees went to the birthday party on nearby East Commerce Street, where the shooting broke out.

He said several hundred people were attending the birthday party, which community leaders said was a 1990s-themed event.

Callahan said that about 11:30 p.m., a state trooper was in the area finishing up a traffic stop when he heard what sounded like fireworks or gunfire. He said the trooper and others rushed to the East Commerce Street home as 911 dispatchers began to receive numerous reports of a mass shooting in progress.

“I just started hearing at first what I thought was fireworks, it was really gunshots, and I heard nine in rapid succession,” Rev. Michael Keene of the nearby Trinity AME Church, told WPVI. “If you’re going to a party, why do you need to take a gun? If you’re there to have a good time, why do you need a gun with you? That means you’re expecting trouble to me.”

The shooting comes during a surge in gun violence across the country and marked at least the third time in 47 days that multiple people have been shot at birthday parties.

On May 6, six adults were fatally shot at a birthday celebration in Colorado Springs, Colorado, by a gunman who died by suicide, police said. On April 5, a mother and her two daughters were fatally shot at a birthday party in Brooklyn, New York, for a 9-year-old girl, who hid in a room and called 911, telling an operator the slayings were committed by her father, who was later found dead after taking his own life.

Murphy condemned the gun tragedy in Bridgeton as a “despicable and cowardly act.” He called the shooting a “microcosm of the scale of gun violence” happening across New Jersey and the country.

“We are at the point where this kind of horrific scene is almost part of our daily lives. It has become commonplace,” Murphy said. “If there is one thing we can never normalize it is senseless gun violence.”

ABC News’ Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.

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