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He found himself face-to-face with the Trader Joe's gunman. How one hostage kept his composure

He found himself face-to-face with the Trader Joe's gunman. How one hostage kept his composure
In this Saturday, July 21, 2018 frame from body camera video released by the Los Angeles Police Department, an officer fires at suspect Gene Evin Atkins running into a Trader Joe's market after crashing his car and firing rounds at officers pursuing him in Los Angeles. (LAPD)

Mike D’Angelo, who looks after his elderly mother, went to the store Saturday in Silver Lake to pick up a couple of items.

Some pasta for his mom. Some dog food for their pooch.

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“I was grabbing stuff and then I heard a screech and then the car crashing into a pole,” said D’Angelo, 43, who saw a man running from the car while firing shots.

“Boom, boom, boom,” said D’Angelo, who told me he has suffered from a learning disability since childhood.

And so began a harrowing three-hour ordeal for D’Angelo, who became a hostage in the Trader Joe’s shootout and standoff, which left store manager Melyda Corado, 27, dead.

In that time, D’Angelo was face to face with the shooter. He said he was terrified but kept his composure as he asked the gunman for permission to check on the fallen employee, who went down near the entrance of the store.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said Tuesday that an officer’s bullet had killed Corado, and that the officers involved were devastated. The shootout followed a long chase, with police in pursuit of Gene Atkins, who allegedly shot his grandmother in South Los Angeles and then fled north before trading bullets with cops at the popular market on Hyperion Avenue.

That TJ’s, which I shopped in for years, has always been as much a centerpiece of Silver Lake culture as a place to shop, and flowers and cards were placed outside the store by neighbors.

Given the death of Corado, people will talk for years about whether police acted appropriately. Based on accounts I’ve read and videos I’ve seen, I think it’s too soon to make a judgment one way or another.

More on that in a minute, but first let’s get back to Mike D’Angelo, whose neighbors called him a longtime Silver Laker who has worked at odd jobs, including dog walker. At his home, D’Angelo told me he’s not working at the moment and likes to ride his “chopper bicycle” or fly his drone with the neighbor who had told me about D’Angelo’s ordeal at Trader Joe’s.

I couldn’t verify every detail, but police confirmed that D’Angelo was a hostage, and much of his account of what happened in the store was backed up by another hostage.

“He was amazing,” that hostage said of D’Angelo, who smoked a cigarette and paced in his frontyard as he recounted the hours in Trader Joe’s.

“I heard like, six or seven shots, and I ran over by the water cases. I didn’t know where else to go. I slid in and had my head covered,” said D’Angelo. “I heard an employee say the gunman’s in the house. I called my mom and told her what was going on. I was terrified. I’m still shaking.”

Some of the shoppers and employees took cover in a storage area, and some managed to escape through a window. D’Angelo was among a small group of hostages who were in the presence of the gunman.

“He had two bullet holes in his arm and he was bleeding badly,” said D’Angelo. “He kept saying he didn’t want to hurt anybody.”

By that point, he already had, and D’Angelo thought the safest course of action would be to comply with the gunman’s demands.

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“I got him whatever he needed. Some water, orange juice and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s,” said D’Angelo, who rounded up the items from the aisles.

He said the gunman drank some of the Jack Daniel’s and poured some on his wounds. Then the gunman asked D’Angelo for his T-shirt to dab at the blood on his arm.

D’Angelo said he complied with the gunman’s request to dial a number, on his own phone. The gunman wanted to speak to his grandmother, but she was unreachable in an emergency room.

D’Angelo said his phone died and another hostage used her phone for him to talk to an LAPD negotiator who was trying to talk the gunman into letting the hostages go.

D’Angelo said that at one point, he asked the gunman if he could go check on the store manager, who lay on her stomach near the exit.

“He said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ and I went with an employee. I kept shaking her, saying, ‘Ma’am, are you OK?’ No response. So I went to put two fingers on her neck, like that, to check her pulse, but she was gone.”

D’Angelo said he moved the victim’s body to the door, then went back into the store because he feared he’d be shot by the gunman if he left.

The gunman was eventually arrested, and D’Angelo said he borrowed a shirt from a Trader Joe’s employee to walk out of the store with a police escort. He and other hostages were then interviewed at a nearby church.

“I’m not a hero or anything,” said D’Angelo, who insisted that his photograph not be taken. If anyone was heroic, he said, it was the diabetic woman — whose name he didn’t know — because she kept the gunman calm and helped end the crisis.

“I’m sorry,” D’Angelo said. “But I’m really exhausted. I haven’t slept much. I keep having dreams of the whole thing in the store. I need to go lie down.”

D’Angelo said he had not seen everything that happened in all the chaos, and he did not see the store manager get shot.

It may turn out that police could have used better judgment in the shootout, but they were being shot at themselves and it’s not clear what they saw or did not see as they returned fire in an attempt to prevent a massacre. We need more information before a fair judgment can be made.

Ron Jacobs, who read The Times’ account of the shooting over a cup of coffee across the street from Trader Joe’s, said bullets were flying in a chaotic situation, but he couldn’t fault the police based on what is known at the moment.

Yitz Weiss, who stood at the shrine outside Trader Joe’s, shared that view.

“It’s terrible that someone gets killed like this, but it’s also difficult to judge the police when they have to make a quick decision under duress,” Weiss said.

What’s undeniable is that a young store manager died, first and foremost, because of the reckless actions of the gunman.

And that regular people, like Mike D’Angelo, found the strength to make it through a horrible day they’ll never forget.

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