The Terrifying Inside Story Of The Trader Joe’s Hostage Siege

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On July 21, 2018, a man crashed his car into a pole outside Trader Joe’s on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles, jumped out, ran across the parking lot, took aim with his pistol and fired a few rounds at the police officers pursuing him. They fired back, and he fired back. Bullets flew back and forth across the lot. The man ran inside the store. The police fired more shots and the doors consequently shattered. Staff and customers threw themselves to the ground…

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So began a terrifying hostage situation that could almost have been dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter. In fact, real-life hostage dramas are relatively rare but not so rare that SWAT teams aren’t ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Before long, Trader Joe’s was surrounded by tactical units, police cars, ambulances and other crisis personnel.

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Inside the store, dozens of shoppers and workers were now being held against their will. Among them was a 55-year-old artist called MaryLinda Moss – a survivor. And several days after the siege, she told her story to the Los Angeles Times. She described a life-threatening encounter that was as humane as it was horrifying.

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The gunman’s name was Gene Evin Atkins. He was a 28-year-old African American man from South Los Angeles. Earlier that day, at around 1:30 p.m., domestic tensions with his 76-year-old grandmother (who apparently objected to Atkins’ girlfriend staying in their house) seemed to reach breaking point. He allegedly shot his grandmother several times and wounded his girlfriend in the process.

Image: YouTube/Los Angeles Police Department

Atkins then apparently bundled his injured girlfriend into his grandmother’s 2015 Toyota Camry and fled the scene. However, the police were able to track his location with the vehicle’s onboard anti-theft device. They confronted him in Hollywood, but he would not pull over. A chase ensued. Atkins allegedly fired at the police through his back windshield. And eventually he crashed outside Trader Joe’s.

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As Atkins appeared to trade fire with the police, Melyda Corado, an assistant manager, was getting ready to leave the building. “The bullets were flying everywhere through the front of the store and across the parking lot,” a witness, Don Kohles, told the Los Angeles Times. And one of those bullets, which was apparently fired by an officer, struck Corado and killed her.

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When the dust settled, Atkins found himself stuck inside the store with about 40 hostages. His arm had been injured, and blood was trickling over the floor. Moss remembers Atkins asking for help. So she removed her shirt and used it to bandage his wounds. A second shopper, called Mike D’Angelo, helped to apply a tourniquet.

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Atkins started to shiver, so Moss walked to the front of the store to fetch him a sweatshirt. It was then that she found Corado’s body in a puddle of blood. With the help of another man, D’Angelo dragged Corado to the front door. “That’s not my fault,” said Atkins, according to Moss’s account. “That was the police.”

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Over the course of the afternoon, several hostages were able to get free. Some were rescued, others were set loose by Atkins. One of them, a man who claimed to have left his young children inside his vehicle, handed over his cellphone to Atkins before leaving. The police subsequently called Atkins on the phone and initiated negotiations.

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Understanding the need to keep Atkins calm, Moss acted as a mediator. When things became too tense, or when the police appeared to be pressuring Atkins too much, she would call time out and hang up the phone. She believed that Atkins wanted a way out of the situation. It was just a case of steering him there without any more violence.

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As the afternoon wore on, Atkins appeared to grow despondent. He realized he had messed up. It was then Moss physically touched his heart area and told him that there was hope, that he had a good heart, that he didn’t want to hurt anyone. “When you put your hand on somebody’s heart,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “it grounds them. I was trying to ground him, and manipulate him, yes, in the best way.”

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Meanwhile, outside the store, the police were moving into position. Riot police lined the perimeter and attempted to peer inside using mirrors. Then a large SWAT van parked right outside the front door, apparently spooking Atkins. “What is that truck doing out there?” He yelled, according to Moss’ account. “Back it up!”

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Atkins spotted a SWAT shooter on the roof of a nearby building and flipped. “If you don’t get that guy off the roof,” yelled Atkins, “somebody’s going to get hurt.” He then started a count, “Five, four, three.” Moss placed herself between the shooter and Atkins. There was a moment of horrifying uncertainty, then a colleague recalled the shooter.

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Atkins promised to hand himself in if he could speak to his girlfriend on the phone. But according to the police, she was about to undergo surgery (she had apparently been found at the crash scene outside the store and whisked away to County/USC). Nonetheless, they managed to make a voice recording of her, which they then played to Atkins. “I’m okay,” she said. “Go out.”

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At about 6:30 p.m., approximately three hours into the siege, Atkins cuffed himself. There were just four hostages left: Moss, D’Angelo and two Trader Joe employees called Victor and Josie. They gathered around Atkins in a ring. “Victor unlocked the door,” Moss told the Los Angeles Times. “And we all went out together.”

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Image: Twitter/Chief Michel Moore

Later that night, with Atkins safely in custody, L.A. police chief Michael Moore tweeted his thoughts. “The destructive and tragic consequences one person can inflict are at the forefront of our minds tonight,” he wrote, “as is the valor & dedication of our men & women who strived to protect so many innocent people. Our thoughts, prayers & hearts are with all effected [sic] by this senseless incident.”

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After receiving medical care, both Atkins’s grandmother and girlfriend survived the shooting. According to CNN, six other people also received medical attention, but their injuries were apparently not life threatening. The incident’s only fatality was Corado. “Saturday was a dark day for the family of Melyda Corado,” read a statement by Mayor Eric Garcetti, “and it is our responsibility to shed light as quickly as possible on what happened.”

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However, in October 2018 Corado’s family filed for damages against the city. Their allegations against the LAPD include excessive force, civil rights violations, battery, conspiring to cover up wrongful misconduct, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and failure to provide adequate training. If the claim is rejected, they may file a lawsuit.

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Meanwhile, Atkins is now confronted with 51 charges, including four counts of attempted murder of a police officer, numerous counts of false imprisonment of hostages, two counts of attempted murder and one count of murder. His bail has been set at $23 million. And Moss has promised to visit him in jail.

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“I do mean it,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “That doesn’t mean that he’s my ‘project’ or he’s my friend, but I was willing to be present with him that day and I would do that again.” Moss believes that her sense of presence on that day may have prevented further bloodshed.

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