Dornesha Catchings and her younger sister, Tehla, intended to make a quick stop at St. Clair Sqaure Mall on Wednesday.
Their mission was to get Tehla, a 15-year-old Belleville East sophomore, some things for the school’s upcoming homecoming dance. That quick trip to the mall wound up lasting more than five hours. The Catchings were among the people who parked their vehicles in the wrong spot. While they were shopping, Fairview Heights police responded to a call of a suspicious package in the west parking lot near Macy’s.
When the Catchings sisters finished shopping around 5 p.m., they were welcomed with a heavy police presence outside and told they could not go to their vehicle, which was near the package.
“We went back inside to get our nails done,” 27-year-old Dornesha Catchings said with a laugh. “We were hoping they would be done with what they were doing by the time we got done.”
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The sisters wound up having a curb-side dinner, eating some Chinese food while sitting on the curb near the northwest entrance to the mall. Finally, just after 8 p.m., their wait ended as members with Scott Air Force Base’s Explosives Ordnance Disposal Unit recovered a suitcase that was left in the parking lot. A robot used by the bomb squad found that the bag, a suitcase, was empty. A bomb unit with the Illinois Secretary of State Police also responded to the scene around 7:40 p.m.
Officers with the Fairview Heights Police Department responded to the mall at 4:11 p.m. after some shoppers notified mall security about the package. Law enforcement was on the scene just shy of four hours before the all clear was given.
“Once (the Air Force unit) arrived, they checked the package and found that it was an empty suitcase that had been abandoned on the parking lot,” said Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius. “Nobody was hurt. The mall was never shut down and, at this point, we’re done with it, collapsing the perimeter and letting it go.”
Inside the mall, it was business as usual as people milled about the facility. Michael Hagen, who is the mall’s general manager, said there was never any thought of closing the mall.
“Nobody in the mall was in danger,” Hagen said. “There was no reason to close the mall.”
Gailius said those inside the mall were never in any danger. He said the suitcase was more than 75 yards from the building at the end of a row of vehicles.
Two exits inside Macy’s as well as another smaller entrance near the store were locked as the police operation took place.
Alexis Conklin, a Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville freshman from Peoria, also hoped to make a quick trip to the mall to pay some department store bills. She wound up waiting to get back to her car inside Macy’s. She said she was more worried about her car than she was her safety.
“I think it’s all so interesting,” Conklin said about a third of the way through her more than three-hour wait to get back to her vehicle.
Conklin’s friend, Alexis Robinson, couldn’t understand why something like this would happen at a mall.
“They picked a really bad target,” Robinson said, “especially when you look at where they put (the suitcase).”
At least two dozen people were stranded at the mall while the scene played out. Molly McGinnis, 24, of Valmeyer, was among those who had one of the longest waits. She was walking out of Macy’s just as police arrived.
“I tried to sneak around and get to my car, but they said I couldn’t leave,” said McGinnis, who wound up getting a ride away from the mall from her boyfriend about 20 minutes before the scene was cleared.