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Dark Side: The Westgate Shooting

Dark Side is a 12 News true-crime documentary on how the Westgate shooting unfolded, how some people become radicalized and whether it could have been prevented.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dark Side is a 12 News true-crime documentary on how the Westgate shooting unfolded, how some people become radicalized and whether it could have been prevented.

Watch below:

May 20, 2020

None of the officers rushing to the scene knew exactly what they were stepping into. It was just after 5 p.m. at Westgate Entertainment District. The mall recently reopened after closing for COVID-19 and pockets of people were starting to gather for the dinner rush. Then, shots rang out.

Dispatchers were flooded with dozens of calls for help and reports that people had been shot.

"Two people down!" you hear one man say.  

"There's a guy going around shooting with an AR-15," says another.

It was about five minutes before officers got to the scene and found the suspect walking around the parking lot outside Dave & Buster's. The suspect dropped his gun and surrendered as officers put him to the ground and put him in handcuffs. 

"What's your name?" demanded one of the arresting officers.

"Armando," the suspect says. "Armando Hernandez."

As police put him in custody, other officers raced around the mall to make sure there weren't any other threats. Meanwhile, other officers, first responders and good Samaritans were working to render aid to the victims.  

Destiny Hernandez, 16, was struck in her leg. Her boyfriend at the time, Alfredo Jaime, 19, was hit in the chest, twice. They were waiting for a ride home outside of Johnny Rockets when they first heard gunshots.

"What he did is unapologetic," Destiny said. 

She remembered being hit and trying to crawl to safety, all while worrying about Alfredo.

"I was screaming for him on the floor," she said. "Continuously, like nonstop."

Alfredo said he saw Destiny get hit first.

"Next thing you know she’s on the ground," he remembered. "I just stopped in place. I felt time stop real quick and I felt the first bullet struck me. That’s when I started seeing blood come out. I was just trying to stay alive because at the same time I didn’t really want to leave her." 

Panic spread throughout the mall as Armando Hernandez began to open fire. 

"We all just took a dive down," Stephanie Vasquez said. "I didn’t really think about it. I just remember falling down straight to my stomach."

Vasquez was 9 months pregnant at the time when she fell on her stomach, trying to hide from gunfire. She was out to eat with her husband, 4-year-old son Damian and friends. 

They  managed to move to a hallway behind Mama Gina's Pizzeria, the chaos sending her into contractions.

"I just remember so much pain," she remembered. "So much pain. I could never imagine. I couldn’t move anymore. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what was going on. Kept hearing a lot of people crying. Mainly little kids. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to all of us."

In body camera footage, officers get into the back hallways and try to get her help.

"We have a woman going into labor," one officer runs outside to tell first responders.

Vasquez says her baby wasn't supposed to be due until June.

"I just thought this is not the way," she said. "This is not the way I want him to be born."

A third victim was hit in her leg after she ran from Bar Louie when gunshots erupted. She ran into a parking lot and tried to hide under a car when Hernandez, the shooter, confronted her at point blank range all while recording it on Snapchat. 

In the videos, saved by police for evidence, you can hear her yelling at him to stop as he points his gun at her. Hernandez didn't shoot her again and she was not seriously injured.

"I see this guy come through where the waterfalls are, and he had this gun," you hear her tell officers in body camera video after the shooting. "Then I kept running and then I fell. And his gun was point blank at me... and he was like 'social madness. Social madness.'"

Who is Armando Hernandez?

After the suspect, 20-year-old Armando Junior Hernandez, was taken into custody, he was taken to the Glendale Police Department.  

Body camera footage shows him responding to officers' questions as they take out his shoelaces and prepare to put him in an interview room.

For nearly two hours, Armando (A) talks with a detective (D), answering all his questions.

D: So you actually got out of the car –

A: I got out of the car first to scope.

D: To look for targets?

A: Yes, sir.

D: Targets being people your age range?

A: Yes.

In his own words, Armando admitted to police he went to Westgate to target people his own age, specifically couples in relationships he envied. He told the detective he probably would have fired more if his gun didn't malfunction.

D: Did you have in your head a goal of how many people you wanted to hit?

A: I wanted at least 10.

D: Okay.

A: If I get at least get 10 people hit I think I’ll be ready. Gain some respect.

He told the detective about his childhood growing up. He remembered family time, playing video games and trips to the skate park.

A: We were always together, we were always happy - a happy family. Every Friday you’d come over – we’d cook. Every weekend we’d go for a nice long drive. Always to Flagstaff. I had a wonderful childhood.  I absolutely did.

A former classmate from Kellis High School remembered Armando from a few years back. The former classmate spoke with 12 News anonymously after the shooting.

"Never used to talk about shooting people in high school, stuff like that," said the former classmate. "I don’t want to be mean, but I feel like he was a loner in school."

Armando told the detective he was bullied and that no one wanted to date him.

D: OK – was it lots of people in high school and middle school that were ridiculing you? And I’m not going to ask you to tell me what kind of things they did, unless you want to tell me.

A: Just being hit on. Smacked on the face. I also remember just being laughed at. Oh that guy – he’s a f***ing weirdo. He wouldn’t have a girlfriend."

Armando said his frustration festered for a few years and to help fill the void he tells the detective he spends a lot of time on his phone watching videos, going down rabbit holes riddled with violence.  

He has details on mass shooters and serial killers committed to memory, detailing facts from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson and the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, back in 2012.

Armando told the detective he’s also researched a lot about different politics and radical groups.

A: Any president up there I do respect them. I respect President Trump...even I respect Obama.

D: Are you like a Republican, Democrat - are you into politics?

A: I’m a red.

D: You’re a red?

A: I’m a communist.

D: Do you look up stuff like that online too?

A: Yes, I do.

D: On YouTube as well?

A: Yes. YouTube, as well. Actually looking into joining a militia. Like ANTIFA. Looking to join a left wing militia. Not for violence – mass violence – just for protecting.

As for guns, he looks up those, too.

He told the detective he bought the AR15 used in the shooting a few months earlier in March - at a pawn shop because he believes in conspiracy theories.

D: Did you buy that with the intent of what happened at Westgate?

A: No.  It was actually for my government conspiracies...I decided I’m going to get ready. Stock up my waters, too. Start looking for an armed vehicle as well so we can go survive in the wilderness.

D: Do you think this COVID thing is a conspiracy?

A: I believe it’s created from the government.

D: And that the aliens are coming?

A: Aliens, yes. Absolutely.

Internet impact

"Social media lets you get seen, heard and loved in two seconds," says Katey McPherson, a youth advocate in Chandler.

She's seen first hand the toll technology can take on teens and young adults.

"Humans are looking for a purpose," she said. "I call it a crew and a cause, especially for young males, they really want to be part of something."

And looking at Armando’s Snapchat from the day of the shooting?

"It was way for him to get the attention that he was seeking," McPherson said.

D: You posted on Snapchat?

A: Yes. I posted on Snapchat while I was firing.

D: What was the purpose of putting it online?

A: Just cause I thought I’d gain some respect.

D: What did you say when you posted?            

A: I remember 'I’m the shooter – I am the shooter of Westgate 2020. Society’s fault.'

In Snapchat videos released by police, Armando said he was going to be the shooter, along with another clip showing his gun where he says "Let's get this done, guys." 

According to the police report, Armando's younger brother saw the Snapchat video almost immediately. The brother said he called Armando right away asking, "Dude, what are you doing? Are you out of your mind?"

Over gunshots, he told police he heard Armando blame society and the government. Then Armando hung up.

His brother called their dad after and told him Armando was shooting up Westgate. At first, he didn't think his father believed him. His dad told police he couldn’t figure out why his son would do this.

D: So tell me when you first started having this thought. When did that happen?

A: Well it’s been kind of an on and off thing.

D: OK.

A: You know. Thought about it 2, 3 years ago. Went off. Then I graduated high school...I’d been humiliated here and there for these past times. I do believe I have a darkness in me but I let the dark side get to me that night.

D: OK. Did anybody – family, friends, did anybody know you had these thoughts over the past few years? Did you talk to anybody about this kind of thing?

A: I thought about it. But I never talked to them. I always thought – I kind of knew it would break their heart...you know they do love me but it’s a very wrong choice I made. I understand. I never talked about it.

In police reports, Armando's younger brother told officers he and Armando would go shooting sometimes in the desert and didn’t think twice when he saw Armando loading his gun at home before the Westgate shooting.

He said Armando never told him anything about shooting at people. His mom, dad and sister told police Armando just got back from a trip visiting his grandparents in New Mexico. He seemed happy.

"You have to be unhappy. Happy people don’t do these kinds of things. Unfortunately, you can be unhappy in many kinds of different ways."

Dr. Richard Bloom with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University studies psychological profiling and says it’s easier said than done to predict violent behavior, especially if warning signs could be buried online.

"Social media, the Internet, are making it easier and easier for angry people to act on their anger - to engage in violent behavior," Bloom said.

McPherson added that researching violent videos can take a toll on developing brains.

"Young brains, prior to age 30 for males, are not developed yet," she explained. "So anything that pulls them in from a dopamine rush standpoint - most of these violent videos. Drop one minute of that is like five hits of cocaine. If you think about the draw to the brain, it really riles the young brain up."

The rise in social media - coincides with a troubling trend.  Suicides are on the rise in teens and young adults over the past decade. The majority of those who die in Arizona are boys.

"If there’s no outlet for my emotional pain, I’m either going to take it out on myself or others," McPherson said.

D: Have you ever had thoughts of killing yourself – hurting yourself?

A: Umm I’ve had some suicidal thoughts.

D: Have you had that thought recently?

A: Recently? No. I haven’t.

D: Did you have that thought - you didn’t have that thought today?

A: Before – very little. But, again, I was like I don’t have the urge to do it.

D: you’d rather do what happened today?

A: Yes, sir.

"Do you consider yourself an incel?"

Armando told the detective he didn’t plan to bring his gun out at first.

A: I thought go see a movie then this stuff happened.

D: Would you say the movie theater being closed – was that like your tipping point?

A: Yeah. Basically.

D: Does this whole COVID thing in general upset you?

A: Yes because I wanted to take out - some women out.

The movie theater, closed due to COVID-19.  A tipping point that falls in another direction as the detective peels back another layer.

D: The term incel - do you consider yourself an incel?

A: I do.

Incel is short for involuntary celibate, a group of typically young men who feel they can’t attract a romantic partner because of their looks.

D: But you did intend to shoot people your age?

A: Yes.

D: Both male and female -

A: Yes.

D: You wanted 10 –

A: I wanted couples.

D: You wanted couples? Because your issue was being able to get a girlfriend?

A: Yes.

D: Why couples?

A: I feel like they make fun of me. Other incels. They like to humiliate us. 

D: Tell me, how do they make fun of you?

A: I can see it all around. When I make a Tinder – guys like me never get a match.

Incel ideology is typically spread online through forums of like-minded people.

"These people proclaim that they’re the only one to know the truth about how society works," said Dr. Stephane Baele.

Baele has gone to digital depths many people would never want to reach. Incel chat rooms and forums, mostly filled with men, sharing sinister thoughts about hating and harming women and couples.

"Calls for raping women, throwing acid, revenge," Baele said. "When you have a community that keeps talking about how they feel and why women are bad - it attracts more and more people and they only discuss within their own bubble. The views get more and more radical."

Baele's become one of the world’s lead researchers into incel culture, writing papers, testifying at trials in the UK, all while trying to get a better understanding of the root of this growing phenomenon.

He estimates there are thousands of people part of this online world, many remaining anonymous.

"It’s important to see these people have a high level of resentment, not only towards women," Baele said. "Their worldview or ideology also puts blame on men, because some men are complicit to this state of affair."

D: Did you want respect for you or did you want respect for other incels?

A: Respect for me. I never really cared about the other ones.

A: Yes, sir.  All I know is the first one was Elliot Rodger, which basically they look up to him as a god.

Elliot Rodger is another name Armando committed to memory. Police say Rodger is responsible for a 2014 massacre right near UC Santa Barbara, saying he killed six people and injured more than a dozen others all because he felt women would never be attracted to him.  

His act was one of the first to expose incel culture in the mainstream.

"In Elliot Rodger’s video, he talks about the retribution days," Baele said.  "The moment they pay for everything society does."

Elliot Rodger’s case rocked the country. He left a video and 140-page manifesto before brutally killing others then turning a gun on himself.

"He becomes some kind of cult figure that is going to propel these discussions to the next step because people are going to admire that and to say 'Oh, he nailed it,'" Baele explained.

Other recent attacks linked to incel ideology or other incel attacks include a deadly 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, a deadly van attack in Toronto and a deadly shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee.

The connection is catching the eye of the Department of Homeland Security, which is now giving out grant money for more research into the risks incel culture can bring. 

"It’s very clear all these people are suffering from a real lack of relationship. That worldview for their narrative is convenient because it puts all the blame of their worldview into others," Baele said.

But it will take more than a study to grasp what makes this growing group tick and whether violent behavior can always be predicted.

"We’re still not where we need to be," Bloom said, expressing how difficult it is to get good research.

"There’s a lot of controversy right now, even if you get findings, how likely are they to replicate?"

In other words, not every mass shooter fits the same mold. There can be similarities, even a lot of them, but not everyone who checks those boxes will wind up committing a violent act.

"Unless you’re willing to detain and incarcerate anyone who would never do anything wrong when it came to the violent behavior," he says. "You’d have a real problem."

And it’s tougher to profile and spot red flags when radicalized groups are moving online, becoming more insular.

"The UK is actually doing a great job of fining those companies because it’s pulling the brain into the lowest part of the brain stem," McPherson said. "YouTube is a prime example - you watch one video and it flips to the next and the next and it just keeps you going."

"A young brain that’s not developed is absolutely going to be swallowed by that. If the content is violent, they’re getting a dopamine rush - so it’s just going to be that much more seductive to them."

YouTube, owned by Google, did not respond to 12 News requests for comment regarding violent videos.

With incel groups, for the most part, Baele says the violent talk is just that - talk. He says it's tough to tell who will actually act on violent thoughts and who just writes them in forums or reads them.

"That’s the million dollar question, right? Because for the vast majority, this never happens."

And with Armando Hernandez's self-proclaimed interest in radical groups, guns and other mass shooters?

"It doesn’t surprise me," Baele said. "That’s also when a lot of problems start to occur. You have some kind of obsession with school shootings but then you read some kind of ideology that 'Oh, that’s why I’m suffering.' And that’s a problematic cocktail."

D: Do you have respect for what they did?

A: Actually – no. I don’t

D: So you think what they did is wrong?

A: I think it’s pretty wrong.

D: But what you did tonight….

A: What I did tonight is basically was a mass, right? You would say? It was a mass. Absolutely wrong. It was a dark side.

Armando's family told police they had no idea he felt this way. His dad told police he even thought Armando had a date planned the following week.

Family members of Armando and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

For McPherson, she thinks we have to be better at spotting the red flags if we want anything to change, even when they’re buried online.

"It is kind of cryptic and kind of insidious," McPherson said. "If you listen to what your kids are saying, language has meaning, so language has meaning at the dinner table, language has meaning in off-cuff comments, language has meaning in clothes they’re wearing, language has meaning in how behavior is showing up. So if you’re paying attention, it’s all there."

Apps, streaming and videos aren’t going away. And with all the bad technology can bring, there are also tools to try and make it better. 

McPherson said she uses parenting apps that can flag any violent videos or concerning content.

"The younger you can start talking about a responsible digital footprint, responsible digital wellness the better," she said. "Being in tune with 'Why do you love the internet so much? What are you looking at?' It goes so far with a relationship with kids when they feel you’re not against it and you’re in it with them."

Surviving the shooting

D: Did you want to kill couples tonight?

A: I wanted to do some impacts on them – engage.

D: Did you want to kill them?

A: No.

D: Why shoot a gun at somebody other than to kill them?

A: You know – get them on the ground. It won’t hurt.

D: Do you understand that they could have died?

A: I do understand that – yes, sir. I understand they could have died. Bleed out.

Months after the attack, the third woman who was shot is healed physically, but her attorney says thinking about that night is understandably emotional. It took just five minutes to change countless lives forever.

For Stephanie Vasquez, her husband and their 4-year old son Damian, crews rushed her to the hospital after contractions started and doctors were able to stop her from giving birth too early. Her new son, Santiago, came into the world two weeks after the shooting, happy and healthy.

"When he was born, I was happy he was finally here with us," Vasquez said. "All the pain after the experience - I carried that on."

Stephanie is now raising him and big brother Damian through a totally different lens after seeing how cruel the world can really be.

"It’s tough sometimes," she said. "Now all of a sudden I can’t hear fireworks anymore the same. Any type of loud nose it makes me jump."

Same for Damian.

"'Someone’s shooting, someone’s shooting. People are going to die,'" she remembered him saying. "So heartbreaking to hear your son say something like that. Especially him going through an experience like that."

Stephanie said she's lost a child before. Her daughter, with medical complications, died in 2018. In the chaos of the shooting she was worried about losing Damian and her unborn son, too.

"I just didn't want to lose two more."

For Destiny and Alfredo, it was months before Alfredo could try and go back to work. Destiny is still relearning to walk.

"He decided to go on a rampage like he had the worst life in the world," Destiny said. "There’s people out here that had way worse. Way, way worse and he just wants to take his life for granted."

Surviving comes with strength but it also comes at a steep cost: losing a sense of security and a sense of privacy.

"We didn’t ask for our lives to be put out to the public," Destiny said. "Us being shot let everybody in."

Hospital bills keep coming and for Destiny, complications with her leg can come at any time. Her mother told 12 News that as of February, it's still painful for her to stand.

D: If you could talk to the people that you shot, what would you say?

A: If I could talk to them.  This is the dark side to me. Absolutely was. I believe I have a big heart but this was the dark side of me. 

Now 21 years old, Armando Junior Hernandez is facing more than 3 dozen felony charges, including attempted murder, which could carry a sentence of more than 20 years in prison.  

He has pleaded not guilty to them all.

A: I’m totally sorry.

D: Do you consider yourself responsible for what happened tonight?

A: I do.

D: All of it?

A: I am responsible.

His parting words to the detective, before he’s taken to jail, where he’s been since the day after the shooting. Hernandez is set to go on trial later this year.

A: I belong here now.  I understand the consequences of what I’ve done. I’ve been honest – it really broke out of me. We all have those dark sides.