Tahaij Wells has been identified as the suspect who was shot and killed after 22 people were injured when multiple people began shooting at a Trenton, New Jersey arts festival early Sunday morning. Seventeen people were treated for gunshot wounds, officials said in a press conference. Wells had recently been released from prison, where he had been since he pleaded guilty to manslaughter as a teenager. His lawyers in 2017 had requested that he be released from protective custody, saying the isolation was hurting his cognitive development. Officials believe the shooting at Art All Night Trenton 2018 started as a fight between neighborhood gangs that spilled over into the festival.
This is a developing story. Here’s what we know so far about Tahaij Wells and the shooting.
1. Tahaij Wells, 32, Was Identified as the Man Killed in a Shooting That ‘Absolutely Could Have Been Worse’
Tahaij Wells, 32, was identified by officials as the suspect involved in the shooting who was killed. The shooting took place in a confined space and could have been much worse, said Angelo Onofri, the prosecutor with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. “It absolutely could have been worse given the confined space and the number of shots that appear to have been fired,” he told CNN.
At first, officials believed 20 people had been injured. They later had to update the number to 22 when two more people showed up at local hospitals with wounds from the festival. One was a male who had a grazed gunshot wound, 6ABC reported, and one woman had bruising to her scalp after the car she was hiding behind took off, throwing her.
The victims include a 13-year-old whom CNN reported was in “extremely critical condition.” The 13-year-old has since been upgraded to stable condition. Two other victims in critical condition were upgraded to stable, and a fourth remains in critical, NBC 10 reported.
An officer who wanted to be unnamed told Trenton Homicide Watch that 70 shell casings were found at the scene. Multiple weapons were recovered, officials said.
2. Wells Was on Parole for Homicide & Had Filed a Motion in 2017 Seeking Release from Protective Custody, Which Had Left Him Isolated in Jail for Years
Wells had just been released from prison and had been on parole since February for homicide, NBC 10 reported. A short article in The New York Times from 2002 describes a Tahaij Wells, then 17, as being accused of shooting Robert McNair three times in the chest during an argument over a girl. After a 10-day search, he surrendered without incident and, in 2004, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
In 2017, Wells filed a motion seeking to be put into the general population of the prison where he was held, before his February 2018 release, on the basis that further involuntary protective custody would violate his constitutional rights. The motion stated that he was almost immediately placed into involuntary protective custody and for the next 12 years, “he does everything alone – eat, sleep, and exercise.” His lawyers argued that 13 years in solitary confinement were very harmful.
According to the court filings, Wells never knew his father and his mother was a drug addict who was murdered when he was only 10. His isolation, his lawyer argued, had impeded his cognitive and social development. The court found at the time that a preliminary injunction should be granted, allowing the plaintiff to no longer be in protective custody.
3. About 1,000 People Were in the Area at the Time of the Shooting, & the Festival Was Canceled
When the shooting began, there were about 1,000 people in the area. (The photo above shows what the area where the festival is held looks like.) The festival did not have metal detectors, CNN reported.
As a result of the shooting, the festival has been canceled. It was supposed to run until 3 p.m. on Sunday. This was the festival’s 12th year, and it featured 1,500 works of art, graffiti, live murals, and many live music performances.
When festival attendees first heard the gunfire at the Art All Night Festival, they thought it was fireworks, Angelo Nicolo told CNN. “All of a sudden, my brother goes to me, ‘You hear that gunfire?’ I go, ‘It sounds like fireworks.'” He said “all hell broke loose” when people realized someone was shooting, and they all started running.
Theresa Brown, who has volunteered at Art All Night for 12 years, said she has never seen violence at the festival like this before, Fox News reported. She said she was leaving her volunteer shift when she heard the shots. “I thought it was a car backfiring,” she said.
4. Officials Believe the Shooting Began as a Fight Between Neighborhood Gangs
Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri told officials during a press conference on Sunday morning that they believe a police officer shot and killed Wells, 6 ABC reported. The shooting happened on the 600 block of South Clinton Avenue at the Roebling Wire Works building, where the festival was being held.
The other suspect in the shooting was taken into police custody. The Mercer County’s Prosecutors Office Homicide Task Force has taken over investigating the shooting because an officer was involved.
Early on, a number of witnesses said that it looked like people were fighting when the gunshots rang out. Franco Roberts told Trenton Homicide Watch, “Someone told us they were shutting down the whole building. Then we turned around and saw people squaring up to fight… I saw two punches and then heard several gunshots… Everybody ran toward the door. And the people fighting got mixed with the crowd that was running and they went out the door shooting…”
Police said there might be more suspects, and they are questioning witnesses.
Law enforcement sources told Trenton Homicide Watch that they believed the fight started between rival street crews. More than 15 hours before it happened, social media posts may have hinted that a shooting was possible, sources told THW. One of the posts was by Danielle Grady, posted around 11:25 a.m. on Saturday. It read: “Please please DO NOT GO TO ART ALL NIGHT! THEY WILL BE SHOOTING IT UP!” The post, which was shared online by Trenton Homicide Watch, was shared to “friends only” on Facebook and was not a public post.
Officials said that several fights between neighborhood gangs broke out before the shooting, and officers had warned before the shooting that the event might need to be shut down as a result, NBC 10 reported. Witnesses said they hear arguing inside the venue before the shooting started.
Officials are also investigating an attempted carjacking that occurred in the same area, to determine if it was related, 6 ABC reported. Officials said that a man approached three people in a vehicle right after the shooting and might have pointed a gun at the them. The vehicle was damaged, but it’s not known if this was related to the shooting or not.
5. The Festival Was Making an Art Project Dedicated to a World Without Gun Violence
One of the many projects at the festival was an art project from Moms Demand Action, seeking a world free of gun violence. Other projects were also promoting a peaceful, violent-free world.
Art All Night released the following statement after the shooting:
It’s with great regret that we announce that the remainder of Art All Night has been cancelled due to a tragic incident that occurred overnight.
We’re still processing much of this and we don’t have many answers at this time but please know that our staff, our volunteers, our artists and musicians all seem to be healthy and accounted for. Our sincere, heartfelt sympathies are with those who were injured.
We know there are a lot of questions and a lot of speculation at this point. We’re still trying ourselves to piece this entire situation together. What we do know is that we are currently unable to release any submitted artwork that is currently inside the Roebling Wire Works building. That being said, we promise you we’ll be in touch as soon as we have more questions we information on this. We truly appreciate your understanding and patience during this incredibly difficult and confusing situation.
We’re very shocked. We’re deeply saddened. Our hearts ache and our eyes are blurry but our dedication and resolve to building a better Trenton through community, creativity and inspiration will never fade. Not tonight. Not ever.
This is a developing story.