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Two dead, one wounded after trainer opens fire at Coral Gables fitness center (w/video)

 
A man is evacuated from the scene after a gunman opened fire at the Shops at Merrick Park in Coral Gables. [Miami Herald]
A man is evacuated from the scene after a gunman opened fire at the Shops at Merrick Park in Coral Gables. [Miami Herald]
Published April 9, 2017

CORAL GABLES — A popular personal trainer who apparently had been fired from his job earlier in the day fatally shot one of his former co-workers and critically wounded another at a fitness club in an upscale mall before killing himself on Saturday.

The 12:55 p.m. shooting shut down the Shops at Merrick Park and scattered scores of scared shoppers and Equinox fitness center members onto the surrounding streets, many of them clad in exercise clothes and holding nothing but their workout towels.

Witnesses identified the shooter as Abeku Wilson, a 33-year-old bodybuilder who had worked at Equinox for years but, according to two employees, had been let go shortly before he returned to the gym with a handgun, took aim and opened fire.

"Five gunshots," said Ovi Viera, 41, a nurse from Coconut Grove who was washing his hands in the men's locker room when he heard the bangs. "It was too loud for it to have been a weight dropping. Within two seconds, people just started running out."

Wilson shot Janine Ackerman, 35, the gym's general manager, and Marios Hortis, 42, a fitness manager, witnesses said. One person who declined to be identified said Ackerman did not appear to be moving after being shot in the head. Hortis was conscious and asking for help but bleeding heavily, the witness said.

A rescue helicopter landed at Coral Gables Senior High School, across the street from the mall, and took the victims to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Ackerman later died, a police source told the Miami Herald. A few of her friends and family gathered at the hospital Saturday evening but declined to speak to reporters.

Ackerman, who was originally from New Jersey, lived in Coconut Grove, public records show. Hortis graduated from St. Johns University in Minnesota, according to his LinkedIn profile, and appeared on a Miami Beach modeling registry website as Mario Hortis.

In a news conference, police declined to identify the shooter or his victims, or to confirm if it was the shooter who had initially died. They also would not confirm Wilson's suicide, saying only that the shooter targeted the victims over an employee-manager dispute. Police sources told the Herald that Wilson turned the gun on himself.

One witness said she saw the shooter, dressed in the personal-trainer uniform of black shorts and black shirt, walk into Equinox through the main entrance holding a handgun. He assumed a shooting stance and targeted a man behind the check-in counter, the witness said.

"He was very serious," said the witness, Benedicte, 48, of Coral Gables, who declined to give her last name. "He was not smiling."

She mimicked him holding the gun with both hands and taking aim — "just really good position" to shoot, she said.

She and her husband, Bruno, 55, heard five shots — first two, then three.

Another man who was at the gym when the gunfire rang out and knew the shooter said Wilson was a "nice guy, quiet. He's not a crazy guy. This wasn't someone who decided to kill a bunch of people.

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"There was a dance class of 40 people if he wanted to do that," the man said, referring to a cardio dance class under way during the shooting. "This was personal."

He said the shooter appeared fine moments before it all began, "although he was agitated earlier in the day after meeting with management."

Through a corporate spokesman, Equinox declined to offer details on the incident.

"We are working with all of the relevant authorities as they investigate the situation," Chris Martinelli said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families impacted by this terrible tragedy. Out of respect for them and our entire Equinox family, we will refrain from commenting further until it is appropriate to do so."

A biography of Wilson posted on a modeling website said he was born in Boston and graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in business administration. He lived in Kendall, according to public records, and frequently posted photographs of his chiseled physique on Facebook and Instagram.

"Abeku is God-fearing, outgoing, charismatic, versatile, ambitious, kind hearted, and has a youthful and loving sense of humor," the biography said. "He has a positive attitude and appreciates and enjoys the simple things in life."

The bio also said Wilson had modeled in various print ads, including for Lucky Brand.

Wilson was well known to Equinox regulars, including celebrities, politicians and former politicians who frequent the high-end gym. Former Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who trained with Wilson for about two years, said he bumped into Wilson and another trainer while they were working on a machine Saturday morning.

"He said: 'Sorry. I'm just off balance this morning,' " Sarnoff said. "Which was strange. The way he said it, he almost slurred his words."

"He did his job very professionally," said Freddy Balsera, the owner of a Coral Gables public affairs firm and another Equinox regular. "He always had a clipboard, measuring the work his clients were doing."

Former state Rep. Erik Fresen, who exercises at the gym almost every morning and last saw Wilson on Wednesday, called Wilson "docile — not a meat head, even though he was a big guy."

"He was honestly one of the sweetest guys there," said Fresen, who heard of the shooting while on vacation in Spain from fellow Equinox members. "I worked out there at least two campaign cycles. I remember he would always be like, 'Come, look: You're on TV!' when my commercials would air."

Wilson's steady stable of clients included model and TV actor Cristián de la Fuente and Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas.

The shooting forced Merrick Park stores to go on lockdown as police patrols surrounded the mall and closed adjacent streets. Over loudspeakers, a recorded alert told customers over and over again: "Emergency! Evacuate or seek shelter." Coral Gables police said they secured the scene — that is, they were certain no mass shooter was on the loose — by 1:45 p.m.

"People rushed inside here," said Tim Hartog, general manager of the Yard House sports bar, who said about 100 people were having lunch at the restaurant's outdoor patio when the shooting began. "People were hiding under the tables. It was just crazy."

Lauren DeCanio, a 21-year-old Florida International University student, was on her way to work at the yoga apparel store Lululemon when she noticed the commotion.

"I saw men with towels around their waists," she said. "Then a man reached out and grabbed my arm, rather forcefully, and said, 'You can't go there. There has been a shooting.' "

A police officer told her and others at the mall to take shelter inside shops. She went into the Chico's store on the second floor. "I went all the way to the back of the store and just sat there with a group of women," DeCanio said.

The mall remained closed for the rest of the day. Equinox members who had run out leaving most of their belongings inside called friends and family for rides home.

Miami Herald staff writers Joan Chrissos, Lance Dixon, Joey Flechas, Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris, Susan Miller Degnan and Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.