‘I looked directly into his eyes’: NJ mall worker on terrifying encounter

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PARAMUS, New Jersey (PIX11) – Business is back to usual at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf kiosk in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus.

But Sam Puente is unfortunately still reliving the tense, terrifying moments that unfolded right in front of his eyes Monday night when a gunman stormed the mall.  They are moments this 17-year-old high school senior feared would be his last.

“I turned my head and I saw him standing right, like, he wasn’t right there, but he was pretty close. Yes, way too close for comfort,” said Sam.

We now know the shooter’s name is Richard Shoop, and that he apparently had no intention of killing any of the shoppers in his path.

But at the time, Sam did not know that.

No one did.

Sam said Shoop was less than fifty feet away when he began firing.

“He shot the gun when I turned my head. So I kinda – I got stuck. I froze. I was in shock. So when he started walking closer. I looked directly into his eyes. And that’s when I decided it was time to run. I dropped everything,” said Sam.

Sam thought he was going to die.

He made a run for it, toward the Abercrombie and Fitch store.

It was at that moment he realized he’d left someone behind.

“I wasn’t going to leave my co-worker. She’s like an amazing person. I wouldn’t have been able to live with it if something happened to her. I turned around and I grabbed her,” said Sam.

Sam accidentally dropped his cell phone in the process – and had no idea dozens of friends and relatives were frantically texting him…wondering if he was safe, as they watched the news – and saw hundreds of police officers surround the mall.

“Are you and Sharleen ok plzzz answer” One friend texts. Another writes, “I’m so worried omg I’m sorry just please let me know you’re alright.”

Sam admits he’s still a little shaken up over the ordeal. “I am, actually. I couldn’t sleep for the past two nights since this happened. I keep seeing, like the image of him holding a gun just shooting in the air. I keep seeing it in my head,“ said Sam.

In the wake of his close encounter with an armed gunman trespassing in what’s considered safe haven, Sam says he’s now living with a nagging sense of vulnerability. Sam says he now thinks more than ever about mall security.

“A lot, actually. It’s amazing to me how he was able to just walk in the mall, and just like walk around from the entrance, with a gun in his hand. A gun that big at that,” said Sam.