News & Politics

LAPD Says Trader Joe's Employee Was Killed by Officer's Bullet in Standoff

You’ve heard of the Stockholm syndrome, but now we have what some officers in the Los Angeles Police Department are calling the “Silverlake syndrome.”

Police allege that on Saturday, Gene Atkins, 28, shot his grandmother and a 17-year-old girl in South Los Angeles, then kidnapped the girl and escaped in the grandmother’s Toyota. The car was equipped with a Lojack device, and soon it was found by officers on patrol several miles away in Hollywood. When the officers tried to pull the car over, Atkins raced off and a chase ensued, during which Atkins fired at the pursuing officers.

The chase ended in the Silver Lake area of L.A., where Atkins crashed into a telephone pole in front of the Trader Joe’s market. Atkins jumped from the Toyota firing at police, two of whom returned fire as Atkins ran toward the store entrance. Atkins was hit in the arm, but, sadly, a police bullet also struck and killed Melyda Corado, a 27-year-old assistant manager of the Trader Joe’s.

What followed was a three-hour standoff, during which a police negotiator talked by telephone with Atkins, who veered wildly between periods of calm lucidity and agitated confusion. There were several employees and customers in the store, some of whom hid in the back of the building, others of whom escaped via a rope ladder lowered from an upper-floor window. Atkins allowed others to walk out the front door, including those who carried the mortally wounded Corado to the paramedics whose efforts would prove futile.

During one of his calmer moments, Atkins told the negotiator he would release all the hostages and face his predicament alone. But four of them, as overheard by the negotiator, vowed to remain with Atkins so as to ensure his safety. Think about that: these four people made the choice to place themselves in peril on behalf of a man who had already shot two people, attempted to shoot several others, and who had, legally and morally speaking, caused the death of a young woman (about which more below). They didn’t want the police to hurt him, they told Atkins.

So unstable was Atkins perceived to be that a police SWAT team was preparing to enter the store and confront him. It is fortunate for all concerned that such a measure was unnecessary, as Atkins at last surrendered. One can imagine a scenario in which the four well-intentioned but foolish hostages acted as human shields even as Atkins tried to shoot any officers who entered the store. As bad as the outcome was, it could have been far worse. Today Atkins faces 31 felony counts, including murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping. Will Atkins’s four guardians, like their predecessors in Stockholm, refuse to testify against him when his case goes to court?

On Tuesday, LAPD Chief Michel Moore held a press conference to confirm what many had suspected: that it was in fact a police bullet that killed Melyda Corado. Moore has been chief for less than a month, and there was apprehension among the rank and file over how he would respond to controversial incidents like this one. So the cops were relieved when Moore, while acknowledging the tragedy of Corado’s death, emphasized the difficult choice facing the officers who fired at Atkins. If they had held their fire, Atkins might have taken the time to aim at them more carefully. What’s more, they wanted to prevent Atkins from entering the Trader Joe’s and taking hostages. The officers were firing at Atkins from a distance of 70 to 80 feet, a difficult shot with a handgun, but one of them was still able to hit him. Despite being shot, Atkins was nonetheless able to enter the store.

The LAPD released relevant portions of the in-car and body-worn video, which shows that the two officers pursuing Atkins, one a six-year veteran, the other with two years on the job, were composed and professional throughout the incident as they faced a situation few officers will ever encounter and few others can even imagine. Note in the video that at the time Atkins exits the car, at about the 2:00 mark, a man can be seen near the doors to the store, and another can be seen walking north on the sidewalk, but neither of them was perilously close to the path of the officers’ bullets. Corado, who reportedly was shot as she exited the store, can’t be seen in the video at all.

In short, the officers who fired were measured in their response, neither firing wildly or excessively. That Corado was killed is tragic, but it does not alter the facts that the officers were justified in firing at Atkins and that under the law it is Atkins who is culpable for her death.

Still, such is the case of policing in America today that some, perhaps to include the four hostages who took it upon themselves to protect Atkins, How Chief Moore handles the coming criticism will have a lasting effect on the department he now leads and the city he has sworn to protect.