LOS ANGELES (CN) – Customers and employees at a Los Angeles Trader Joe’s market say they were taken hostage last summer after a man led police on a high-speed pursuit right to their neighborhood market and on Wednesday several of those witnesses recounted that day in a Los Angeles courtroom.
The incident began when Gene Atkins shot his grandmother at her South LA home and stole her car, according to prosecutors.
For the group at the Silver Lake neighborhood market, the incident began with a loud car crash outside the market and then gunshots.
Mike D’Angelo testified he was at the checkout stand when he heard the crash and then stepped outside. He said he saw Atkins step out of a blue Toyota that crashed into a light pole.
“He pulls out a gun and starts shooting at the cops,” D’Angelo said of Atkins, who was present in the courtroom for the preliminary testimony. “He was shooting at the cops and then ran toward the Trader Joe’s.”
A store manager ran outside to see if anybody needed help and walked into the shootout between officers and Atkins, according to prosecutors. Melyda Corado was struck and killed by an officer’s bullet and D’Angelo said he helped carry her body to emergency responders, but he did not want to leave the market.
“I didn’t want to leave the people there,” said D’Angelo, even though he said he was scared.
Defense attorney Michael Morse asked D’Angelo if he felt that he could leave at any time and D’Angelo said he probably could have left.
But other witnesses did not see it that way.
Arta Gjonbalaj says she was on FaceTime with her father when the shooting outside the store began. She ran to the back of the market with other customers and wanted to text her family.
“I assumed it was a mass shooting,” Gjonbalaj said. “I wanted to send them my final goodbyes.”
Atkins asked a store employee to call everyone to the front of the store and became agitated when he saw a sharpshooter, according to Gjonbalaj.
“He demanded if the sharpshooter didn’t leave in five seconds, he’s going to count down from five and we were going to be dragged out in body bags,” Gjonbalaj said.
For over three hours, Atkins acted erratically as he negotiated with police, according to Gjonbalaj.
Atkins asked an employee to pick someone from the group and a young boy was let go from the market. He then asked an employee to lock the front door, Gjonbalaj said.
Atkins asked for hard liquor, took several swigs from a bottle, he asked a woman to massage his back and told the group that they could text on their phones, but then demanded they stop because they were taking too long, said Gjonbalaj. She said she pretended to be part of a family with a mother and daughter so Atkins would let her go.
Witnesses testified Atkins was bleeding from a wound to his arm and a blood trail was left throughout the market.
Eydi Velasquez was working at the market and hid with a group of people in a break room. Atkins eventually came into the break room and asked for someone to come with him, Velasquez said.
She said he seemed angry, distressed and waved his gun at the group. He grabbed a woman by the arm and led her out of the break room. The group left inside the break room barricaded the door with furniture and then called 911 after Atkins left, according to Velasquez.
Deputy District Attorney Tannaz Mokayef projected a photograph of a cold storage room where piles of chairs leaned against a door and splatters of blood dotted the floor.
Velasquez quietly sobbed and said, “Just seeing all the blood on the floor brought back a lot of traumatic memories.”
She was able to leave the market through an emergency exit.
The other group with Atkins watched him negotiate with police and then asked for a pair of handcuffs. D’Angelo said he went outside the market and retrieved a pair of handcuffs thrown from an officer and gave them to Atkins who was then handcuffed. The gun was placed inside a shopping bag.
Atkins is charged with Corado’s murder, kidnapping, assault with a firearm and several other charges. A witness testified Atkins was seen carrying a woman out of his home before the high-speed pursuit began. That same witness said she received a threatening phone call in relation to her testimony.