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Chief: Police bullet killed Trader Joe’s employee during LA standoff

The LAPD also released footage of officers returning fire after Gene Atkins shot at police


Access is blocked to a Trader Joe’s grocery store in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, Sunday, July 22, 2018.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

By Joseph Serna and Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Police Department announced Tuesday that one of its officers fired the bullet that struck and killed a Trader Joe’s employee in the frantic moments they exchanged gunfire with a suspect in an attempted murder case over the weekend.

“On behalf of myself and the rest of the department, I want to express my deepest condolences and sympathy to her family and everyone that knew her,” Chief Michel Moore said of the store manager, Melyda Corado, 27. “I know that it’s every officer’s worst nightmare to hurt an innocent bystander during a violent engagement. I spoke with the officers this morning — they’re devastated. They were devastated in the immediate aftermath of this event.”

Moore said that the officer who fired the shot that killed Corado was with a partner chasing suspect Gene Atkins, who had allegedly shot his grandmother hours earlier and had repeatedly fired on pursuing officers chasing him through Hollywood and Silver Lake.

When Atkins crashed his car into a utility pole next to the market, he jumped out and fired at police as he ran into the store, Moore said. The two officers in closest pursuit got out of their car and returned fire. One of those bullets struck Corado, Moore said.

“I’m sorry to report that we’ve now determined through our forensic investigation that one of the officers’ rounds struck Miss Corado as she was exiting the market and was in close proximity to Atkins,” Moore said. “Miss Corado ran back inside the store and collapsed behind the manager’s desk.”

The chief said he would wait until the investigation was completed before determining what consequences, if any, the officers involved in the gun battle would face internally. But on its face, he said, the officers’ decision to shoot at Atkins appeared justified.

“I believe it’s what they needed to do in order to defend the people of Los Angeles, defend the people in that store and to defend themselves,” Moore said. “I ask that you place yourself in these two officers’ positions and ask yourself ‘What would you have done?”

Moore noted that he was releasing details of the shooting along with police dashboard and body camera video of the incident earlier than is typical “in order to frame the circumstances that these officers found themselves in.”

The videos show three perspectives of the chaotic car chase through L.A.’s busy Silver Lake neighborhood on Saturday afternoon.

As the police cruiser speeds after the suspect’s Toyota Camry, the gunman opens fire on the officers and shoots out his rear window.

“Oh … ! Shots fired, shots fired!” a male officer who is driving yells as the vehicles weave in and out of traffic along West Silver Lake Drive.

Moments later the female officer in the passenger seat says, “All right, partner, I got my gun out.”

“Do not, do not shoot,” the male officer responds. “Get distance. We are getting distance.”

The dash camera video then shows the suspect’s car swerving left onto Hyperion Avenue toward Trader Joe’s and then crashing head-on into a utility pole.

Seconds later, the police car stops and gunfire can be heard as the suspect springs from his vehicle, holding a weapon, and dashes into the market. It was at about that time that one of the officers’ bullets struck Corado, passing through her arm before entering her body, according to the police chief.

Following the initial exchange of gunfire outside the market, the officers moved to a wall opposite the market. Atkins allegedly shot three more times at police from inside, striking the wall and a pole near police, Moore said. The sound of rounds hitting a pole and exterior walls can be heard on at least one of the officers’ body camera video.

The incident then turned into a hostage crisis that ended hours later with Atkins’ surrender. No other customers or employees were injured.

Following Moore’s announcement Tuesday morning, Mayor Eric Garcetti released a statement supporting the chief’s choice to release the videos and circumstances of Corado’s death.

“Saturday was a dark day for the family of Melyda Corado, and it is our responsibility to shed light as quickly as possible on what happened,” the statement read. “Melyda’s loved ones are entitled to answers — and Angelenos deserve complete transparency in understanding the full circumstances of her death.

“I met with Melyda’s father on Saturday to share my sorrow over his daughter’s death, and he has my commitment to a thorough investigation and helping the family in any way possible — as they take those first, enormously difficult steps toward coping with the trauma of losing such a vibrant, compassionate young woman who was loved by so many.”

Atkins, 28, is being held on $9 million bail and faces a slew of felony charges including murder, attempted murder and kidnapping in connection with Saturday’s rampage.

The decision to engage in a firefight at the busy shopping center led some to question the LAPD’s response, while others were quick to praise the officers for risking their lives in an effort to stop Atkins.

Charles “Sid” Heal, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s commander and expert on law enforcement shootings, said the video reflects the realities of the life-and-death decisions officers face when a suspect fires at them in a public place.

“The suspect created the situation and law enforcement inherited it,” Heal said. “The alternative was to surrender the lives of hostages inside the store, plus he could have killed those officers … you can play the scenario over and over again, but nobody is going to have a better option.”

Heal, a former SWAT supervisor, said Atkins could have entered the store and shot those inside.

“People in a case of a tragic loss of life will look for solutions, but sometimes there isn’t one,” Heal said. “The standard is not perfection. As an officer, if you don’t shoot here, you are risking the lives of hostages and your officers. As tragic as this loss is, this isn’t a complex decision.”

“It’s one of those lose-lose situations,” Geoff Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force, told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. “Unless you can walk away with no one else getting injured or killed, there’s going to be someone criticizing something.”

But some were openly critical of the LAPD’s decision to shoot at Atkins when there were bystanders in the area.

“How are police deciding to open fire in a packed place, in the afternoon, on a Saturday?” asked Jesse Palmer, a 38-year-old neighbor of the slain woman. “It’s not like it’s an empty lot. It’s not like it’s an abandoned warehouse. What sort of protocol is required before you shoot into an area that’s congested and booming with commerce?”

The chaotic series of events that led to the shooting and a subsequent standoff inside the popular Trader Joe’s began hours earlier in South L.A. Police said Atkins had become involved in an argument with his grandmother at their home on East 32nd Street. The dispute turned bloody and Atkins shot the woman multiple times before forcing his girlfriend into his grandmother’s Toyota Camry, authorities said.

Police used an anti-vehicle theft system to track Atkins to Hollywood hours later, but he fled. He shot at police during the ensuing car chase, shattering the rear window of the Camry, before crashing into a light post on Hyperion Avenue, where the Trader Joe’s is located, according to law enforcement officials.

©2018 Los Angeles Times