A man charged with shooting his grandmother and his girlfriend and then getting into a gunbattle with pursuing officers that resulted in the fatal shooting of a Trader Joe’s assistant manager by police threatened that people inside the Silver Lake store during the ensuing standoff would be “dragged out in body bags” if a police sharpshooter atop a nearby building didn’t leave, one of the customers testified Wednesday.
The testimony came during the first day of a hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to require Gene Evin Atkins, 29, to stand trial on 51 counts, including a murder charge stemming from the death of Melyda Maricela Corado, who was fatally wounded in front of the store in the 2700 block of Hyperion Avenue on July 21, 2018.
Atkins, who is jailed in lieu of $15.1 million bail, is also charged with attempted murder, attempted murder of a peace officer, assault on a peace officer with a semiautomatic firearm, kidnapping, fleeing a pursuing peace officer’s motor vehicle while driving recklessly, grand theft of an automobile, discharge of a firearm with gross negligence, shooting at an occupied motor vehicle, false imprisonment of a hostage and mayhem.
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore confirmed last year that the bullet that killed Corado was fired by a police officer, not Atkins, who surrendered to SWAT officers after about three hours of negotiations.
Though he did not shoot Corado, Atkins is charged with her killing under the theory that he set off the chain of events that led to the 27-year-old woman’s death.
Arta Gjonbalaj, who was waiting in line to pay at Trader Joe’s, testified that she ran to the store’s bread section after hearing gunshots following a loud screech outside and texted her family members because she assumed it was a “mass shooting” and wanted to send them her “final goodbyes.”
She said a Trader Joe’s employee subsequently instructed her and others that they needed to go to the front of the store, where she saw a man with a gun — whom she identified in court as Atkins — talking on the phone and was told to sit down.
“The gunman was on the phone with the police negotiating and at one point we looked up and there was a sharpshooter across the street, and he demanded that if the sharpshooter doesn’t leave in five seconds, he’s going to count down from five and we’re going to be dragged out in body bags,” she said.
Gjonbalaj said Atkins”started counting down from five and when he got to, I think, about two seconds, the sharpshooter left,” noting that she made eye contact with him during his countdown. “He stopped because the sharpshooter, I believe, left the scene.”
The prosecution witness testified that she saw Atkins with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to an arm and that he asked for clothing to wrap around it. He also requested alcohol at one point and took a few gulps from the bottle, she said.
The young woman — who said she did not feel free to move around the store during the standoff — told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar that Atkins eventually asked for handcuffs to cuff himself in exchange for the gun, with the condition that police officers could not step inside the store. She said Atkins agreed to release her with another young woman after asking if the two were sisters, and gave the two permission to leave the store.
Another store customer, Mike D’Angelo, identified Atkins as the man he saw shooting at police outside the store following a car crash. He said that he subsequently went back inside the store, and Atkins sat on top of him at one point.
The defendant said, “You’ve got to get that thing out of here,” when police moved an armored vehicle in front of the store, D’Angelo said.
He said he asked Atkins for permission to check on the store’s mortally wounded assistant manager and moved her to the sliding front doors with an employee’s help after finding that she did not have a pulse, and then later went to retrieve the handcuffs Atkins had requested for himself.
D’Angelo said he walked out of the store first, with Atkins and a customer who had been helping him to negotiate with police in the middle and two others in the back as the standoff came to an end several hours later.
Store employee Eydi Velasquez testified that she ran to the store’s break room after hearing gunshots and seeing a man enter the store with a gun in his hand, and that Atkins eventually came to the break room while waving his gun “kind of in a sweeping motion” and demanded that someone get up and go with him.
“I believe he grabbed her by the arm,” Velasquez said of the woman, noting that the others with her barricaded themselves, went inside the cooler, called police and were advised that it would be safe to leave from a nearby emergency exit, which they did.
When shown a photo of blood drops, the store employee’s voice choked with emotion.
“Seeing all the blood on the floor brought back a lot of traumatic memories,” she said, noting that she believed the blood was from Atkins and that it might have been coming from his arm.
Los Angeles police Officer Sinlen Tse — who is due back on the stand Thursday — testified that he began chasing the defendant’s vehicle after getting a report of an armed and dangerous attempted murder suspect who had shot his grandmother and left in her car.
Video from the dashcam in Tse’s patrol car showed the vehicle ahead being driven through a construction zone, blowing through red lights and stop signs and traveling on the wrong side of the street, according to the officer, who noted that a police helicopter helped to keep him updated on the car’s location when it sped out of his sight at one point. Just under 14 minutes into the chase, “we were being shot at,” Tse said of himself and his partner.
Last year, Moore told reporters that witnesses reported seeing Atkins shoot at the officers as he exited the car following a crash, and that the officers returned fire as Atkins ran toward the Trader Joe’s entrance.
The police chief said the two officers — one a six-year veteran, the other with two years on the force — fired a total of eight shots in return. One of them struck Atkins in the arm, but he continued running inside. Another struck Corado, traveling through an arm and into her body, Moore said.
Corado managed to stumble back inside the store after being shot, collapsing behind the manager’s station.
Moore — who described the officers as being “devastated” — said they did “what they needed to do in order to defend the people of Los Angeles and defend the people in that store and defend themselves.” He said Atkins fired additional rounds at police from inside the store, but officers did not return fire.
Atkins allegedly shot his 76-year-old grandmother and his 17-year-old girlfriend in South Los Angeles in the hours leading up to the pursuit.
The prosecution’s first witness testified that she called 911 after hearing four gunshots, and subsequently saw Atkins walking out of a house with his girlfriend, who “looked like she was unconscious.”
At a hearing in April, Mary Madison testified that the grandson she had raised from the age of 7 shot her point-blank in the chest that day, then asked her where to find her car keys.
She said she had never seen Atkins with a gun and had no idea how he got it, but said he had been agitated earlier in the day and the two “had words” over him and his girlfriend lazing around Madison’s house.
At that hearing, Madison testified that her grandson “had a real bad temper at times” and said she had taken him at about age 8 or 9 to a therapist. She said she wasn’t aware of any other treatment since then and didn’t know if he was under the influence of anything on the day of the store shooting.
Madison said she underwent multiple surgeries, spent months in rehabilitation and now needs either a wheelchair or a walker to get around.
At a court hearing last December, Atkins told the judge that he has no criminal record, but has an “extensive mental health record” that includes a diagnosis of “bipolar disorder and a list of other disorders, as well.” He unsuccessfully tried to plead insanity at that hearing.
He told a judge in February that he was a prophet “sent here by Jesus” and didn’t understand anything, and an attorney was subsequently appointed to represent Atkins, who had been acting as his own lawyer. He lost his bid to replace his attorney just before his latest hearing got underway.
Relatives of Corado filed a lawsuit Nov. 29 against the city of Los Angeles and two LAPD officers, saying they were still seeking answers about the shooting that the city and police department have refused to provide.
Attorney John C. Taylor, representing Corado’s father and brother, called it an “out-of-policy” shooting. He said Trader Joe’s had no liability in the shooting and that the store “was as much a victim as Mely Corado.”