Trader Joe’s suspect in 2018 shootout will stand trial for murder of store manager
The gunman spotted the police sharpshooter on the roof and became agitated.
Inside the Trader Joe’s supermarket in Silver Lake in July last year, he threatened to kill someone if the sharpshooter did not leave.
“Five, four, three,” he counted on a cellphone to a police negotiator as his terrified hostages waited to die.
At the count of two, the sharpshooter abandoned his post, and the hostages were spared.
The countdown was among the many harrowing moments recounted by hostages and other alleged victims of Gene Evin Atkins in emotional testimony during a four-day hearing in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
Some hostages established a rapport with Atkins and tried to keep him calm and comfortable, despite the handgun he used to threaten them and the blood dripping from a serious wound on his arm, the testimony revealed.
On Tuesday afternoon, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar ruled that prosecutors had presented enough evidence for Atkins to face trial for the murder of Trader Joe’s store manager Melyda Corado, the attempted murders of his grandmother and girlfriend, and 48 other criminal counts.
Central to the murder charge was the “provocative act” theory holding that Atkins was responsible for Corado’s death, even though an LAPD police officer’s bullet killed Corado during a shootout with Atkins.
Atkins’ attorney, Michael Morse, told the judge that the prosecution’s theory, which requires that the defendant recklessly endangered human life, should apply only to the initial gunfire exchange with Los Angeles police officers.
Any shots from the officers after Atkins, now 29, went into the store should not be held against him, Morse argued.
Villar did not agree with Morse, deciding that there was “more than sufficient cause” to believe that Atkins was guilty on all counts. She set Atkins’ arraignment for Sept. 18.
The dramatic events of July 21, 2018, began well before an ordinary Saturday afternoon turned into an unimaginable nightmare for shoppers and employees at the Trader Joe’s on Hyperion Avenue.
A neighbor, Nataly Bahena, testified that she heard gunshots from the house on East 32nd Street near Long Beach Avenue in South Los Angeles where Atkins lived with his aunt and grandmother.
Bahena called 911, then saw Atkins carrying a woman who appeared to be unconscious, putting her in his grandmother’s blue Toyota Camry and driving away.
The unconscious woman was Atkins’ girlfriend, who appeared to be bloody, Bahena said.
Inside the house, Atkins had shot his grandmother, Mary Madison, in the chest, lead prosecutor Tannaz Mokayef said. Prosecution and defense attorneys agreed to accept a transcript of an interview with Madison so she would not have to testify.
Atkins then allegedly led police on a pursuit through Hollywood and Silver Lake, much of which was captured on in-car and body cameras, reaching speeds of up to 85 mph, witnesses testified.
At a gas station on Beverly Boulevard, Atkins attempted to carjack a family that was visiting from out of state.
He pointed a gun at the man and woman in the car, but they had trouble finding the keys. He took off as sirens and helicopters were audible nearby, the victims testified.
On Rowena Avenue in Silver Lake, Atkins appeared to fire a gun through his back windshield at the lead LAPD pursuit car, according to a police video that prosecutors played in court.
Sinlen Tse, the officer whose bullet inadvertently hit Corado, said Atkins crashed next to the Trader Joe’s, then got out of the car and opened fire at him and his partner.
Tse said he shot back as Atkins ran into the store.
According to a report from LAPD Chief Michel Moore, Tse’s partner, Sarah Winans, also shot at Atkins. Moore and the L.A. Police Commission found that the officers’ use of deadly force did not violate department policy, and Tse remains on duty in the Hollywood Division.
A Trader Joe’s shopper, Emma Argueta, testified that she was in her boyfriend’s car leaving the parking lot when she witnessed the shootout and felt something in her eye. Her boyfriend exclaimed that her eye was bleeding and took her to an emergency room.
She had surgery that day. More than a year later, the vision in her right eye remains blurry. She gets migraines in sunlight and cannot read for long periods, she testified.
It was unclear from the testimony what caused Argueta’s eye injury, but Atkins was charged with disfiguring and assaulting her.
An LAPD officer, James Decoite, testified that he helped Atkins’ girlfriend, Leah Williams, as the hostage standoff intensified inside the store.
A video played in court showed a woman in gray shorts spattered with blood walking out of the Camry and into a police car. Decoite recalled that the wound on Williams’ forehead was so deep that her skull was visible.
People who were inside the Trader Joe’s testified that they heard screeching and a loud crash, followed by gunshots.
As they realized that a gunman was inside the store, some flattened themselves on the floor and texted loved ones. Others took refuge in an employee break room.
Prosecutors played store surveillance video showing Corado, 27, in a black floral top running toward the store entrance at the sound of the crash and gunshots, returning to crouch behind the manager’s desk and then slumping down on her stomach.
Atkins eventually allowed a store employee and a shopper to drag Corado’s body out of the store, witnesses testified.
Employee Victor Robles testified that Atkins ordered him to get some Advil, which the store did not carry, then asked for alcohol. Robles selected a bottle of Jack Daniels, and Atkins took a swig.
Later in the standoff, Atkins focused on Robles again, presenting him with a choice: He could leave himself or select someone else to leave.
Robles picked a teenager because of the boy’s age.
“I didn’t want the young kid to stay any longer,” Robles testified. “He was just a child and shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Atkins allowed several other hostages to leave, including Arta Gjonpalaj and Morgan Kail-Ackerman, who pretended to be sisters.
Kail-Ackerman’s mother, Cyrani Ackerman, said she acted as if both young women were her daughters and suggested to the gunman that they be allowed to leave.
Mary Linda Moss was singled out by other witnesses as the hostage who dealt most closely with Atkins and helped him work out his differences with LAPD negotiators.
Moss testified that she got a jacket for Atkins, who was shaking and appeared to be in shock from the wound to his arm. She had to step around Corado’s body to reach the jacket, she said.
After more than three hours, Atkins decided to peacefully surrender. A hostage went to the door to retrieve handcuffs from police officers, and Atkins allowed Moss to put them on.
The hostages walked out of the store in a tight cluster with their hands up, Atkins in the middle.
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