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Questions swirl over LAPD shootout with gunman that left a Trader Joe's store manager dead

Gene Atkins, a 28-year-old Los Angeles man, has been identified as the suspect in a wild car chase and gun battle that left one woman dead and sparked panic inside a Trader Joe’s store in Silver Lake.

In the span of a few hours, Gene Atkins had shot his grandmother, kidnapped his girlfriend and then led police on a wild chase from Hollywood to Silver Lake while shooting at officers from his car, authorities said.

Now, the armed 28-year-old was running through a crowded Trader Joe’s parking lot toward a store filled with dozens of shoppers and employees.

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The officers chasing him had a decision to make: Shoot back and risk the lives of anyone in the line of fire, or allow Atkins to enter the store and potentially endanger dozens more.

In the gun battle that followed, the store’s manager was killed as she stepped into the parking lot.

It remains unclear whether the manager was shot by police or Atkins, but the decision to engage in a firefight at the busy shopping center led some to question the Los Angeles Police Department’s response, while others were quick to praise the officers for risking their lives in an effort to stop Atkins.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore labeled the situation a “tragedy,” and policing experts said the officers faced a near-impossible decision in which their options ranged only from bad to worse.

“It’s one of those lose-lose situations,” said Geoff Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and expert on police use of force. “Unless you can walk away with no one else getting injured or killed, there’s going to be someone criticizing something.”

But some were openly critical of the LAPD’s decision to shoot at Atkins when there were bystanders in the area.

“How are police deciding to open fire in a packed place, in the afternoon, on a Saturday?” asked Jesse Palmer, a 38-year-old neighbor of the slain woman. “It’s not like it’s an empty lot. It’s not like it’s an abandoned warehouse. What sort of protocol is required before you shoot into an area that’s congested and booming with commerce?”

The chaotic series of events that led to the shooting and a subsequent standoff inside the popular Trader Joe’s began hours earlier in South L.A. Atkins had become involved in an argument with his grandmother at their home in the 1600 block of East 32nd Street. The dispute turned bloody and Atkins shot the woman multiple times before forcing his girlfriend into his grandmother’s Toyota Camry, police said.

Police used an anti-vehicle theft system to track Atkins to Hollywood hours later, but the gunman fled. He shot at police during the ensuing car chase, shattering the rear window of the Camry, before crashing into a light post on Hyperion Avenue, where the Trader Joe’s was located.

Atkins fired at police as he ran toward the store, and was injured by a volley of return fire, police said. He is expected to survive and is being held in lieu of $2 million on suspicion of murder, according to an LAPD spokesman. Additional charges are likely.

The suspect’s cousin, Charlene Egland, said Atkins lived with his grandmother, whom she identified as Mary Madison. Madison raised Atkins and frequently took care of him despite past run-ins with police and sometimes heated clashes between the two family members, she said.

“Whenever he got into something, she’d go to his rescue; that’s why I can’t even believe what he did to her,” Egland said.

Police said the shooting left Madison in critical condition. On Sunday, Egland said Madison, who is in her 70s, had made it through surgery and would likely be “OK.”

Madison and Atkins had repeatedly argued over letting Atkins’ girlfriend sleep at their home, relatives said. Atkins had struggled with anger issues as a child and was deeply affected by his mother’s death from leukemia in 2014, according to Egland and another cousin, Deshon Hayward.

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“We pretty much have been trying to figure out why he would harm the one person who has done the most for him. We don’t understand. He must have blacked out,” Hayward said.

Los Angeles police had arrested Atkins for vandalism in 2008, but he was never formally charged with a crime, records show. Madison also received a restraining order against Atkins in 2010, records show. Egland said Atkins stopped taking medication in recent years. She said she believed her cousin needed professional help.

Egland, who lives next door to Madison, said Atkins also robbed her daughter at gunpoint in 2010, but he was never arrested for the crime. In recent days, Egland said, Atkins made disturbing comments to her daughter.

“I’m either gonna die and go to hell or I’m gonna kill somebody,” he said, according to Egland.

Sid Heal, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department commander and use-of-force expert, said it would be tragic if a bullet fired by police caused the death of an innocent bystander, but added that Atkins was an obvious danger to both the public and responding officers.

“We try to have a clear field of fire, but obviously the suspect has a substantial, even a decisive, advantage if we don’t return fire,” he said. “There is no easy answer.”

The question of whether to open fire on a dangerous suspect when innocent bystanders are nearby is one that has confronted other officers, including the LAPD’s chief.

As a young officer, Moore was moonlighting as a security guard at a shopping mall in the San Fernando Valley when he killed a man who was firing a semiautomatic rifle in the parking lot. With parked cars obscuring his view, Moore was unsure what the man was firing at. The man pointed the rifle at Moore, who fatally shot him in the head, according to a report by then-Chief Daryl Gates. It later became clear that the man was shooting at his ex-wife, killing her.

Moore received the LAPD’s Medal of Valor, awarded to officers who display courage in the face of imminent peril.

In the aftermath of the Trader Joe’s shooting, friends remembered the slain store manager, identified by a relative as Melyda Corado, as a cheerful presence in the neighborhood.

“I could always hear her laughing — that boisterous, big, room-filling laugh,” said Palmer, who lived in the same apartment building as Corado for four years.

Corado shared a two-bedroom apartment with a couple who neighbors said were among her closest friends, according to Zaher Cassim, the building’s manager. She recently transferred to the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s from a different store branch.

Outside the store Sunday morning, a steady stream of students, residents and tourists could be overheard talking about the violence.

By noon, a blooming memorial filled with roses, lilies, daisies and tender wildflowers had sprouted at Monon Street and Hyperion Avenue, stacked against the grocery store’s white exterior. Customers, neighbors and others stopped by to pay their respects, scribbling sympathy messages on sticky notes and attaching them to the wall above the bouquets.

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“All of the employees are part of our community,” one note read. “We will care for each other.”

Those who were held hostage inside the store remained shaken Sunday as they recounted the harrowing experience of a bloodied and panicked Atkins pacing through the store with his gun drawn. Roughly 40 people were inside the store when he barged in, according to Moore, though several were able to escape by fleeing through windows or rear exits. Atkins also released a number of hostages during a three-hour negotiation with the LAPD.

Ten people were taken to area hospitals and treated for non-life-threatening injuries, according to a statement issued Sunday by the LAPD. No officers were hurt.

Cyrani Ackerman, 49, told The Times she was walking toward the checkout line with her 19-year-old daughter when the screech of tires sent her scrambling. As gunfire began to erupt outside, many customers fled toward the back of the store, either cowering in bathrooms or ducking in aisles as far away from the melee as possible.

“Seven of us were hiding in the back behind the bread,” she said. “There was a lot of shots fired.”

The gunman stayed near the front of the building with about five employees and customers, according to Ackerman, who said at some point the gunman noticed people had found ways to exit the store. He ordered one hostage to walk the aisles and round up anyone else who was hiding, including Ackerman and her daughter.

Ackerman said she noticed a lot of blood in the store but did not know about the death of the store manager while she was hiding. She said she overheard the gunman talking to police as he demanded to speak with his grandmother and referred to someone being dead. The comments caused her and others hiding inside to grow even more fearful.

At one point, Atkins became alarmed by the sight of snipers outside the store, according to Ackerman.

“That’s when he threatened to kill us,” she said.

During his negotiations with the LAPD, Atkins also discussed the woman who was fatally shot as he stormed the grocery store.

“He said to the police that it was their fault for her being dead,” Ackerman said.

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