Nicole Fox ventured to Cherry Hill Mall early Wednesday. After hearing news accounts of chaos at the shopping center the evening before, blamed by authorities on unsupervised teens, she wanted to be done with her shopping before there was any repeat.
"That's the kind of stuff that freaks me out. It puts fear in you," said Fox, 42. The Cherry Hill resident had brought along her 2-year-old son, James, and her plan was to leave before any unruly teenagers arrived.
Police said between 700 and 1,000 juveniles were milling about Tuesday evening near the food court when disturbances broke out.
"It was one fight, and then another fight started," said Kolby Eleazer, 19, of Burlington City. "It was like a big riot."
Eleazer, who operates an online apparel business, Benjiboys, said some juveniles raced up and down escalators, prompting the mall to shut down the escalators. Mothers holding young children close scurried from the mall, he said, while some shoppers found themselves locked inside stores as merchants, fearing vandalism, shut the gates.
"Everything kept escalating more and more," said Eleazer.
But police and mall security officers, anticipating trouble this time of year, were present in large numbers, and the teens were quickly corralled. There was no widespread vandalism and only minimal disruption for shoppers, authorities said Wednesday as merchants lifted their gates for the start of another day of business.
What sparked the melee was not clear, Police Chief William "Bud" Monaghan said. According to one social media post, he said, it may have been a lover's quarrel. But, he added, "who knows?"
Five juveniles were arrested and charged with offenses that included disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Four were from Camden and one was from Cherry Hill, according to police.
Monaghan was prescient. Just the week before, he had issued appeals to parents not to leave their teenage children unattended at the mall. And mall management and police had jointly prepared for trouble, sparked often by social media organizing, that they had seen in previous years at malls.
In an interview, Monaghan said his department had assigned more than two dozen additional officers to the mall this week and extra security officers were brought in as well. The planning included several meetings to discuss how to handle such situations, he said.
An employee who works in a shop near the food court said the larger-than-usual police presence was obvious even before there was a problem Tuesday. Still, the employee said, there should be a curfew for minors, and given problems in the past and at other malls, asking for identification and posting security at every entrance should be considered.
What happened erupted suddenly and involved teens who looked like they were younger than 17, the employee said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We're all back in business, and it's all good," said the employee, who asked not to be named or to have the store identified.
"It was quick, because there were people here to take care of it," the employee said. "It dissipated very quickly."
Monaghan also credited the planning for swiftly bringing things under control. He acknowledged that not all teens at the mall cause problems.
"We definitely prevented a situation that could have escalated," he said.
"The day after Christmas just seems to be the worst. People are pent up from being with their family," the chief said. "The 26th always seems to be a rush."
Videos posted on Facebook showed a dense crowd of rowdy juveniles, with at least one kicking at a glass door.
Cheryl Cooper, 45, of Camden, was sitting at a high-top table with her family outside Macy's on Wednesday morning.
"It doesn't surprise me," she said of the overnight disturbance. "That's crazy. It doesn't make sense."
Her son, Adam, 26, agreed. "What happened to coming to the mall, shopping with your friends, and having a good time?"
Toward evening, the mall parking lots looked packed as usual. Shoppers trickled in throughout the morning, and lunch time was uneventful at the food court where the teens were unruly the night before. However, the trouble on Tuesday did not start brewing until families began heading home near dinner time and teens began arriving, some on NJ Transit buses.
The mall has more than 130 stores and restaurants.
Earlier Tuesday, township police had renewed their appeal to parents.
"The day after Christmas is one of the busiest shopping days of the season. Over the last few years, malls nationwide have seen an increase in the number of unattended juveniles that are dropped off at retail shopping centers, creating disturbances and engaging in criminal behavior," township police said in a statement posted on Facebook.
"The safety and security of our shoppers, retailers, and employees are always top priority," Lisa Wolstromer, the mall's senior marketing director, said in a statement Wednesday. "We thank the police and our security partners for their assistance and commitment to ensuring the comfort and safety of the shopping center."
Said Eleazer: "It's just like a tradition. You go to the mall the day after Christmas. I don't think [the disturbance] was planned. I think it just escalated this year."