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3 dead, including gunman, in Del. courthouse shooting

Custody battle cited; 2 women seen as targets

Christine Dunning, police chief in Wilmington, discussed the courthouse shooting after a conference on gun control.

Tim Shaffer/Reuters

Christine Dunning, police chief in Wilmington, discussed the courthouse shooting after a conference on gun control.

WILMINGTON, Del. — Motivated by a yearslong custody dispute, a gunman opened fire Monday morning in a Delaware courthouse lobby as the building was opening to the public for the day, exchanging shots with police, authorities said. Three people, including the gunman, died.

‘‘It happened so fast,’’ said Jose Beltran, 53, an employee at the New Castle County Courthouse who was entering the lobby when he heard two shots. He said he turned around and heard three or more shots as he ran.

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State Police Sergeant Paul Shavack said the suspected gunman and two women are dead. Mayor Dennis Williams said in a phone interview that one of the women killed was the shooter’s estranged wife, but Shavack said police had not confirmed that.

Shavack did not say how the gunman died. He said two police officers suffered injuries that were not life-threatening.

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden said at a news conference that the shooting was the result of a custody dispute.

‘‘It’s developed out of a long, over the course of many years, custody dispute in the courts of this state,’’ he said.

Earlier, Shavack said the gunman opened fire before he passed metal detectors in the lobby.

Chick Chinski, 62, of Middletown said he was entering the courthouse to report for jury duty when he heard popping sounds.

‘‘It didn’t sound like gunfire first at all,’’ said Chinski, adding that he saw the gunman pointing his weapon.

He said it seemed that the shooter targeted the two women who were shot as they stood in the middle of the lobby.

‘‘Absolutely,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s right what he went after when he came in the door. That’s exactly what he did instantly.’’

Chinski said that earlier, he shared an elevator with the gunman and others from the parking garage. The gunman was quiet and did not appear agitated, Chinski said.

In the hours after the shooting, dozens of police cars and emergency vehicles were on the streets surrounding the courthouse. Police searched the courthouse room by room as a precaution.

Dick Lawyer, who works across the street at a law office, said his office building was on lockdown for a few hours, starting about 8:15 a.m.

The shooting occurred about five minutes earlier. “We have a couple of people whose relatives work at the courthouse,’’ said Lawyer, who works as a document management specialist for the firm.

Robert Vess, 68, dropped off his wife, Dorothy, 69, for jury duty at the courthouse. He said it wasn’t until after 10:30 a.m. that she was able to call him and let him know she was safe. Vess said his wife, who works as a baker at a grocery store, was crying when she called, but he thought she would be all right.

‘‘She had said, ‘If I had my way, I’d do jury duty every day,’ but I don’t think so after this,’’ Vess said.

A news release from the state court administrator said the county courthouse would be closed Tuesday for the investigation and repairs.

‘‘The violence today has saddened and horrified all of us,’’ said Delaware Chief Justice Myron T. Steele. ‘‘I know I can speak for our entire judiciary in thanking the Capitol Police for risking their lives to protect as many of our citizens and employees as they could.’’

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