A man wielding a samurai-style sword killed two people and wounded three others at an Irvine supermarket Sunday before his bloody rampage ended with a fatal volley of police gunfire.
The deadly attack occurred about 9:35 a.m. inside the Albertsons at Culver Drive and Irvine Boulevard, when Joseph Parker, a 30-year-old bagger known for erratic behavior, entered the market where he worked and began slashing employees and customers, witnesses said.
Wearing a green beret and a long, dark coat, the Santa Ana man pulled out a sword with a 3-foot blade and calmly attacked in silence, almost beheading one of his victims. As he roamed the store, employees armed with barbecue utensils, mayonnaise jars and trashcan lids tried to corner him.
“There were trails of blood everywhere. People were running. A lady was screaming,” said Javier Ascencio, 38, of Irvine, who was returning a gallon of spoiled milk. “I was yelling for everyone to get out. Things just happened so fast.”
Scores of customers, including the wounded, fled from the market in Northwood, an affluent part of one of the state’s safest big cities. On Sunday morning, the store and adjacent retail center were filled with shoppers, people walking dogs and boys in baseball uniforms. Forty to 50 people were in the Albertsons.
“It was mass hysteria” outside the store, said Terry Fowler, a nurse who helped staff an impromptu triage center. “Everybody was in shock.”
The supermarket “is like my extended family,” said Linda Kouri, 65, of Tustin Ranch. “I know everybody, and they know me and my grandson. It is so sad. I just get the chills thinking about what happened here.”
Police said two longtime Albertsons employees, Judith Fleming, 55, and John G. Nutting, 60, were killed. Two customers and another employee suffered moderate to serious slash and stab wounds. They were taken to Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, where they were scheduled for surgery.
Nutting, who worked five days at a Newport Beach Albertsons and one day a week at the store in Irvine, was about two months from retirement. Co-workers said he had worked in the supermarket business since 1960 and had managed several stores in Orange County.
About 10 minutes after the attack began, Irvine police shot Parker, who was taken to the same hospital as his victims. Doctors pronounced him dead of his wounds.
“The officer was confronted by the suspect, and the officer fired his weapon,” said Police Lt. Jeff Love.
Police declined to speculate on a motive for the attack, but store employees and customers who were acquainted with Parker said that he acted distant, talked about religion and often behaved erratically. They said he would talk to himself in gibberish as he walked along the row of checkout counters or smoked outside the store.
“I have always told people that he was going to do something crazy someday,” said Karl Wieduwilt, a young bagger at the store, who worked with Parker for more than two years.
Others said Parker was unpleasant to be around and was not the type of person they would want working for them, although some workers said they got along well with him.
“He was a pretty scary-looking dude,” said Dave Wessler of Irvine, a regular customer. “I could not believe this guy worked at this store. They were good about hiring handicapped people, but he was a little too over the edge.”
A law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Parker had been detained at least twice by police for mental health reasons in the last few years. The last, the official said, was Jan. 15 at another store in the same shopping center.
According to an employee and the law enforcement official, Parker had not shown up to work for a few days. He reportedly approached the store manager Sunday, said that a friend had recently died and asked for some time off.
It was unclear what the manager’s response was. After walking away from the manager, they said, Parker drew the sword from a sheath beneath his coat.
Witnesses said Parker cornered Nutting near the front of the store and stabbed him in the torso. He slashed Fleming across the throat, nearly beheading her.
Employees then chased Parker around the store, helped by workers from nearby retailers. They armed themselves with items from the store’s aisles, including trashcan lids and items from the barbecue section.
“I was yelling at the top of my lungs for everyone to get out of the store,” said shopper Ascencio, who armed himself with a metal chair and followed Parker from aisle to aisle. “It looked like he was going after employees and anyone who tried to help the employees.”
The hysteria spilled into the parking lot, where nurse Fowler and a doctor treated the wounded, using shirts and belts from passersby as tourniquets and bandages.
The victims suffered deep lacerations to their arms, and one was cut on the back and across the forehead.
Fowler, 45, director of ambulatory care at UCI Medical Center in Orange, was in the toothpaste aisle when she heard a woman screaming that a man had killed one of the workers.
“She was holding her arm and she was bleeding,” Fowler said. “I looked up and down the aisle, and I saw a man with a trench coat on and a sword holding it above his head.... It was just enough for me to say, ‘Where’s the nearest exit? I need to get out of here.’ ”
Meanwhile, witnesses said three officers entered the store about nine minutes after the first 911 call. Police reportedly confronted Parker and ordered him to drop his sword. Parker refused, they said, and one officer opened fire with an AR-15, the civilian version of the military’s M-16 assault rifle.
“He’s a hero,” one law enforcement source said of the officer. “He saved a lot of lives today.”
That afternoon, the news about Fleming’s and Nutting’s deaths saddened customers, fellow employees and neighbors. They eulogized them as hard-working, generous people, who were willing to help co-workers.
“If you needed a hand, you could always count on him,” said Ralph Hoekstra, a neighbor of the Nutting family on Queen’s Park Lane in Huntington Beach. “He liked woodworking. He rebuilt bicycles and motor scooters. He liked garage sales. All I would have to tell him was what I was looking for, and within a month he’d show up with the stuff.”
Erik Flores, 23, a produce clerk at the store, learned of Fleming’s death when he reported to work at 2 p.m.
“She was always in a good mood. She went out of her way to help you out,” Flores said. "[She] loved her job. I would never hear her complain about anything. It is going to take a while to recover from this.”
In the aftermath, police took employees and customers to department headquarters for questioning. Officers led groups of hugging, crying witnesses from the store to a a restaurant, where they boarded a bus.
Outside the Police Department, Adrian Elizondo, 28, of Santa Ana waited anxiously to be questioned.
He said his wife took a job at the store’s deli counter about three months ago and he was nervous about her going back to work on Tuesday.
“I don’t want her to go back,” he said. “Two people just passed away and there is no security in the front of the store.”
Earlier at the shopping center, Melissa Shobe, 49, of Irvine was in the middle of a pedicure and a manicure at a nearby day spa when the attack began.
“A kid once called this place ‘the Bubble’ because it was so safe,” she said.
“This is a rude awakening. I guess the bubble burst today. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Dan Weikel, Stanley Allison, Zeke Minaya, Denise Bonilla, Kimi Yoshino, Jeff Gottlieb, Mike Anton, Mai Tran and Stuart Pfeifer.