Sunday, June 24, 2001

NEWS - Woman dies after shooting at zoo

Woman dies after shooting at zoo
Hundreds evacuated from Potter Park as police seek assailant
June 24, 2001
Lansing State Journal
By Adam Emerson

Police evacuated hundreds of people from Potter Park on Saturday after a 41-year-old Lansing woman was shot and killed outside the zoo.

Bernita K. White was shot once just after 3:30 p.m. while walking with her daughter and friends from a picnic area toward the zoo's ticket booth, police Lt. Raymond Hall said.

White was pronounced dead at Sparrow Hospital about an hour later. Her death marks Lansing's second homicide in three days and second of the year.

Police have no one in custody and no suspects.

"You never assume anything, but this appears to be a random shooting,'' Hall said. "We don't have a motive. We don't have a shooter.

"There's a lot of unanswered questions."

Witnesses reported hearing one or two shots, possibly from a wooded area north of the zoo entrance, Hall said. No one, though, saw who fired the shot.

Lansing Parks Director Murdock Jemerson said he couldn't remember an evacuation in the park's history. At least 300 people were believed to be in the park and zoo, enjoying a sunny afternoon.

"This is the first time we've ever had anything like this,'' Jemerson said. "This just doesn't happen here."

White and her daughter were dropped off at the zoo by her husband. He arrived a half- hour after his wife was shot, expecting to pick them up.

Officers ushered a fleet of cars out of the park's main entrance off Pennsylvania Avenue. The park was roped off by police tape about 4:15 p.m. Nearby Sycamore Park also was shut off.

About 20 officers, six detectives and every available dog- tracking team combed the park, the zoo and surrounding neighborhoods. A state police helicopter performed an aerial search.

Some park goers scattered when they heard the gunfire. Others, believing they'd heard firecrackers, stayed at the park - until a bevy of police cars sped through.' Abandoned food and water bottles remained on picnic tables near where White was shot. Yellow police tape cordoned off the pathway near the children's play area.

Families scurried quickly, hand-in-hand, to waiting cars that whisked them away.

Lansing's Elena Paizana heard a shot as she walked through the park with her 9- year-old son, Antonio.

"It was loud - really loud,'' said Paizana, standing with her son near the entrance at Pennsylvania Avenue, waiting for her husband to pick them up.

"We were just going for a walk,'' she said. "About 15 cop cars came through. They just told everybody to get out."

Alan Gurski was at the zoo with his friends when he heard park officials over an intercom order everyone to leave.

"We were just ready to walk out,'' Gurski said. "We saw the area roped off right outside the zoo."

The park and the zoo were closed for the rest of Saturday, Jemerson said. The park and zoo will be open today.

All animals in the zoo were fed just before 5 p.m. and placed in their pens. A zookeeper went back by 8 p.m. Saturday to check on them.

Ithaca's Rick Umlauf was riding his bike along the River Trail over Pennsylvania Avenue just after the shooting. He rides the trail about once a week when he works in Lansing.

"This is where people bring their families on the weekends, their kids,'' Umlauf said. "What happens when you can't come to the zoo?''

Although police believe the shooting was random, they'll interview White's family and friends to see if anyone may have wanted to harm her.

"This could be anything from an accidental discharge to an intentional homicide,'' Hall said.

"But they'd have to be one hell of a good shot.''' Contact Adam Emerson at 377- 1058 or aemerson@lsj.com.

"We don't have a motive. We don't have a shooter."

Lt. Raymond Hall , Lansing police spokesman

How to help

Anyone who heard gunfire or has information about Saturday's park shooting is urged to call the Lansing Police Department at 483-4600.' Potter Park Zoo will be open today.

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