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Gene Atkins and the Trader Joe's Hostage Incident in Los Angeles

Larry is a true crime fan and has several years of experience reporting on true crime cases and hosts a true-crime podcast.

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Setting the Scene

This case starts on July 21st, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. A 28-year-old man named Gene Evin Atkins is living with his 17-year-old girlfriend at the home of his 78-year-old grandmother, Mary Madison.

Gene had been living with Grandma Mary since he was seven years old. But when he decided to bring his young girlfriend over to stay at their house, tensions between the grandmother and grandson rose. Gene had recently lost his job and two cars. He had told people that he assumed he was going to die or go to jail soon.

Gene had no hope for himself. Life was not going well for him and the tension between him and his grandmother was getting worse. According to Gene's cousin, Gene had previously slashed the tires on his grandmother's car and broke the windows in their house because of the fighting that was going on between them.

On July 21st, Gene and Grandma Mary were in an argument about Gene's 17-year-old girlfriend living at her house—the two of them dating is technically illegal and Grandma Mary no longer wants the girlfriend to live there. She demands that both leave the house and that Gene get a job and do something with his life.

At around 1:30 p.m. on July 21st, as the fight escalated, Gene grabbed a gun he had been keeping under his pillow in his bedroom and shot both his grandmother and his underage girlfriend.

He immediately fled the scene with his injured girlfriend, as several neighbors had immediately called the police at the sound of the gunshots. While he gets his injured girlfriend into his grandmother's car and they take off, LAPD had already been dispatched to the home. It's not long before the police catch up with him.

LAPD had dispatched a helicopter to spot him. They know what kind of car Gene is driving because neighbors saw him leave; responding officers catch up pretty quickly. A police chase ensues in the middle of Los Angeles on a summer Saturday, and the area is bustling.

Police Chase Ensues

The chase lasts nearly 15 minutes, weaving recklessly in and out of traffic, putting many lives in danger. In the middle of the chase, Gene tries to carjack a tourist family at a gas station, but the family couldn't find the keys to give to Gene. So he just hops back into his own car as the sirens are getting closer.

Around 3:30 p.m., Gene is out of control and shooting out the back window at cops during this chase. Eventually he crashes his car into a power pole in the area of Los Angeles knows as Silver Lake. He turns around and starts shooting out the back. This power pole that he crashes into is right in front of a Trader Joe's supermarket on Hyperion Avenue.

Police surround the crashed car. They all have their guns drawn. This is all happening at the corner of an intersection, so traffic has stopped on a Saturday in the middle of summer. People are outside and everyone's stunned

After a brief moment, Gene opens his driver-side door and jumps out of the Toyota. His girlfriend is still injured and stays inside. When he gets out of the car, he immediately turns toward the police and fires. As he is shooting, he is running towards the entrance of the Trader Joe's.

Inside Trader Joe's

The Trader Joe's front door is near where Gene crashed. There are at least 40 to 50 people inside Trader Joe's at the time of this incident. The cops can't just shoot back, because they might hit someone.

On the body cam footage, you hear cops saying "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" It's not clear. Cops do fire back. As Gene is running, police are firing back.

Inside the Trader Joe's store, a bunch of random strangers are peacefully doing their shopping when everyone hears a loud screeching sound followed by a crash. Confused and alarmed, everyone stands there.

To their horror, the screech is quickly followed by gunshots. It takes roughly two to three seconds for panic to set in. People scream, drop to the ground, take off running—everyone is confused and scared.

Seconds after the first gunfire, people in the store start yelling to get down. The gunshots were getting louder and eventually, someone yells out that the gunman is in the store. These were people in this store who suddenly found themselves in a group of strangers all going through the same terror together.

Among these Trader Joe's shoppers are:

  • Lynne Westafer, a promotions producer for CBS
  • Arta Gjonbalaj, a student and a model
  • Cory Page, an environmental associate for the Walt Disney Company
  • MaryLinda Moss, an art consultant

MaryLinda found herself standing in between two counters right at the front of the store. When the gunman ran inside, she can see him and she's exposed. The counters are low, so she's ducked down but he can see her. Lynne was in the back of the store, she could not see the gunman, but she could hear the commotion going on up front. She's scared for her life, frozen in place.

Arta is standing next to Lynne and she takes out her phone and starts taking pictures of the surroundings and everything that's happening, in hopes of documenting or helping in the aftermath. Cory is also towards the back of the store and has found himself shoved into a closet with a glass door, but at least it's a room and it's covered. He's crammed in the close with 21 other people.

This closet is small. They are crammed in, body-to-body. Cory also pulls out his phone and is taking pictures. Cory along with everyone in the closet know they are sitting ducks, but what are they going to do?

Back up front, MaryLinda is still in sight of the gunman. She notices his left arm is severely injured and bleeding due to being shot. He is holding the handgun in his right hand but he's not actively shooting.

Lynne had left her phone in the car but everyone around her begins making phone calls and texting their loved ones.

The shooter yells for everyone to get off their phones because he can hear people talking. Outside of the store, police are now lining up and the media has now arrived—they were already following the car chase. First responders are pulling Gene's girlfriend out of the crashed car and taking her into the hospital. Live footage from outside the Trader Joe's is being broadcast on every channel.

MaryLinda can see the shooter checking out the door as the police had lined up. He is peeking his head around to look out but they're not opening, because he's not close enough. She can tell he's weak and is frightened.

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When he turns around and makes eye contact with her, he demands that MaryLinda come over to him and massage his hand because it's hurt from the bullets. MaryLinda walks over and does it. She begins massaging the hand of this random guy, who just shot at police and walked in here.

The gunman is making phone calls on his own phone and he discovers that his grandmother is still alive. And that the police got there right after he left and they rushed her to the hospital.

So MaryLinda says that after the news of the grandmother still being alive, the shooter starts going into what she believes is shock. He begins shivering, sweating, not talking. He's just staring blankly and MaryLinda asks him if she should get him a jacket from the store. Gene agrees.

On the way to get the jacket, MaryLinda passes a desk and sees a woman lying on the floor behind the manager's desk. When she walks by her at first, she thinks this woman is just taking cover on the floor.

As she gets closer, MaryLinda notices that the girl doesn't acknowledge her; she doesn't even move. She's just laying there. So she gets the jacket and on her way back, she looks closer and notices there's a pool of blood around the girl. It was one of the bullets from the cops.

MaryLinda returns to the gunman and tells him there's a girl on the floor over there and calmly asks if we could look into trying to get help for her because she looks like she's not doing well. The shooter replies that it was the cop that shot her, no him.

MaryLinda says that's okay and she still needs help. The gunman allows her to take the injured woman outside They find out the woman's name is Melyda Corado. She was the store manager and only 27 years old. She had actually run outside after the sound of the crash eager to help, thinking there was a car accident.

However, she didn't know she would be running into the crossfire between Gene and the LAPD. By the time Gene got out of his car, she was running out to help and he was running in so they crossed paths. She got shot but ran back inside. She did not realize she was shot.

Police Try to Make Contact

The gunman's phone rings and it's the police trying to make contact with him, because it's a hostage situation. They tell Gene his girlfriend is still alive and the bullet only grazed her head. Gene tells the cops if they let him talk to his girlfriend on the phone, he will surrender and come out.

Gene Starts to Actually Take Hostages

He hangs up the phone and asks out loud how many people are in this store and tells everyone to come to the front of the store.

People start making their way up front because he walks around and demands that people move. One by one, 13 people are brought up in a single file line with their hands in the air to the front of the store.

They notice all the blood,; his gunshot wound was bad. Both Lynne and Arta are part of the 13 hostages who have moved up to the front of the store. They are confused when they get up to the front of the store and see MaryLinda massaging the gunman's hand.

The gunman is wearing a sweatshirt with his hood up, which is strange for this hot summer day. MaryLinda begins telling the gunman that he has a good heart and he know you don't want to hurt anyone. The other survivors are confused about why she's interacting with him and why she's talking to him.

But they are later grateful for this act of kindness because they realize she was helping to ground him and deescalate the situation.

Gene tells all of them that if they know what he had done this morning. MaryLinda says that whatever happened this morning doesn't matter. You get to choose now how to act. At this point, Gene decides after some persuasion to let someone go. They decide to let a 13-year-old boy leave the store.

Cory who is still in the back in the closet with everyone still hiding, and they are getting antsy. One by one, Gene decides to let hostages go, but he decides that he doesn't want one woman to leave right when she gets to the door.

The woman just darts out anyway. This is when Gene askes the employee to lock the front doors. He gets mad and says he's no longer letting anyone leave. So the SWAT team has set up snipers around the building on other buildings. Gene looks through a window and spots a sniper across the street sitting on the building.

He's on the phone with the cops and he begins freaking out, asking why there's a guy with a gun on the roof of the building. All the hostages begin yelling at the police through Gene's phone to remove the sniper from the roof. The guy doesn't move, so Gene tells them he'll count down from five and if the sniper is still there, Gene is going to kill someone. He gets to two and someone finally moves the sniper.

At this point, Gene notices this isn't going to end well for him. He's seen the snipers and the SWAT truck. He asks the police on the phone to send in some handcuffs so that he can handcuff himself and walk out. Because he feels like if he's handcuffed they won't shoot.

They finally throw the handcuffs in. I think the police didn't want to give Gene the handcuffs because they thought he might handcuff himself to a hostage and then come out, which is a more dangerous situation.

Gene tells MaryLinda that his life is over. She tells him she knows people who are in prison and have made lives from themselves on the inside. She tells him his life is not over and he can make a life for himself.

Right after this a recorded message comes in through the phone from Gene's girlfriend saying she's okay and that Gene just needs to go outside. She repeats it like five times. He then begins re-releasing the hostages one by one.

MaryLinda takes the gun from Gene and handcuffs him. Gene thinks they're going to kill and tells MaryLinda he was scared to go out there. She tells him she will walk out with him. They end up walking out together, making a little barricade.

Police grab him and arrest him. There were no gunshots and it goes down smoothly. It would be 15 more minutes before SWAT would find the 21 people in the closet.

Aftermath

On July 22, 2018 a memorial is held for Melyda the manager. She died right after she was taken outside. It was a police bullet that had hit her.

Gene Atkins would be charged with her death for setting the events in motion. The police wouldn't have fired if he hadn't run out and fired at them. He was also charged with 51 felony counts, including attempted murder and kidnapping.

He would go on to plead not guilty and will go to trial.

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