OMAHA, Neb. – A young man dressed in a camouflage vest and armed with a rifle who wrote that he wanted to “go out in style” opened fire amid holiday shoppers in an Omaha department store yesterday, killing eight people, wounding at least six others and sending hundreds into panic.

Police said the gunman, identified as Robert Hawkins, 19, then died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the state’s deadliest shooting incident in 50 years. There were conflicting reports regarding Hawkins’ age and the number of people injured.

Hawkins was fired from a Bellevue McDonald’s restaurant yesterday, said Debora Maruca, whose family took Hawkins in a little more than a year ago, and who found the suicide note. Maruca said Hawkins told her he was accused of stealing $17 from the restaurant. He had also broken up with a steady girlfriend two weeks ago.

“He was depressed, and he had always been depressed,” she said. “But he looked like he was getting better.”

Hawkins befriended Maruca’s teenage sons and went to live at their family’s house in a middle-class Bellevue neighborhood just south of Omaha after being kicked out of his own family’s home.

But he also had a drinking problem and would occasionally smoke marijuana, she said. Hawkins listened to music and played video games – “normal teenager stuff,” she said.

“He was a very helpful young man, but he was quiet,” Maruca said. “He didn’t cause a lot of trouble.”

It emerged last night that Hawkins had been arrested Friday for possessing alcohol. His arrest record included a 2005 conviction for disorderly conduct in which he was sentenced to seven days in jail.

Witnesses described horrific scenes inside the Von Maur store at Westroads Mall after the shooting began shortly before 2 p.m. The gunman fired from a third-floor balcony, witnesses said. One witness told a TV station he shot up a teddy bear as he sprayed fire.

“The shots wouldn’t stop,” said Von Maur shopper Carol Padon, who thought she heard 15 to 25 shots before fleeing.

Dozens of Omaha police, Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents sealed off the mall as medics rushed gurneys into the store. Police had not released the identities of victims last night. Among the six wounded, two people were in critical condition at the Creighton University and University of Nebraska medical centers.

Shoppers leaving the mall were told to walk out with their hands over their heads. Many were hysterical and crying.

Hawkins was found dead in the customer service area of the store. Roxanne Philip, who worked the service desk, described seeing a woman who had been on the other side of the customer service counter, apparently shot dead. She said she also believed her boss had been shot because she heard him moaning.

Another employee, Chuck Wright, said a co-worker had described standing on the second floor near the escalator and looking up to see a man lean over a rail and shoot in the head a man standing right next to her.

President George W. Bush was in Omaha yesterday for a fundraiser, but left about an hour before the shooting.