Produced by Chris Young Ritzen
[This story first aired on February 16. It was updated on December 14.]
"I don't know what's going to happen," Lynne Westafer said of the moment she heard gunshots. "None of us know what's going to happen."
"A hundred-percent, I thought it was a mass shooting," Arta Gjonbalaj told "48 Hours." "We're all going to die."
Gjonbalaj and Westafer were trapped with approximately 30 other people inside a Trader Joe's in Los Angeles, when a beautiful July 2018 Saturday afternoon was shattered by the sound of a car wreck and gunshots. Gene Atkins, who police say had shot his grandmother and then kidnapped his girlfriend, had led police on a chase when he crashed his car outside of Trader Joe's and exchanged gunfire with arriving officers as he entered the store. The store manager, Melyda Corado, was caught in the crossfire and killed by a police bullet. Those left in the store scrambled for cover.
"The gunshots had gotten louder," MaryLinda Moss recalled. "Somebody yelled, 'The gunman is in the store.'"
"It looked like a murder scene. There was blood everywhere," said Gjonbalaj.
Members of the Los Angeles Police Department surrounded the store, including the SWAT team, which took strategic positions on buildings in the sight lines of the entrances. Then the alleged gunman spotted a sharpshooter on the roof of the cheese store next door. The gunman, on the phone with police, demanded the sniper move.
"He says, 'If you don't get them off the roof, I'm going to shoot somebody," said Westafer. "I'm going to shoot somebody in 5, 4, 3, 2 …'"
A SUNNY SATURDAY TURNS DARK
Lynne Westafer: Saturday, July 21st, was a really nice summer day.
Cory Page: It was sunny, just like every single day has been since I moved here (laughs).
WOMAN [ON PHONE]: Hello?
911 DISPATCHER: …Is everything OK? We got a 911 call from your phone.
WOMAN: Yes, um, the – that front house in front of me – I think it's my aunt's grandson just shot her.
911 DISPATCHER: Oh, my goodness!
911 DISPATCHER: OK –
WOMAN: Now he's leaving in her car…
911 DISPATCHER: What kind of car? Tell me what kind of car, ma'am.
WOMAN: It's a blue – a dark blue Camry…
Richard Winton | Los Angeles Times crime reporter: The gunman … shot his grandmother … multiple times.
KCAL REPORTER: That just goes to show you how dangerous the suspect is.
KCAL ANCHOR: And then leading police on a pursuit from South L.A.
KCAL REPORTER: He had a female with him. We believe that that may be his girlfriend.
Lynne Westafer: And I was just doing my usual Saturday thing. I went to my yoga class in the morning, and then ran a couple errands…
KCAL REPORTER: Police started searching for that car. They found it in the Hollywood division…
Arta Gjonbalaj: My friend was letting me stay at her place and I was like, "OK … I'm gonna go get groceries for us for the week." I love grocery shopping. It's like my hobby!
Lynne Westafer: I was coming right up on the Trader Joe's. I thought, "Oh I'll just go in there."
Cory Page: Whenever you go into that Trader Joe's, there are always like hundreds of people inside of it.
Richard Winton: On this given Saturday … this is where the eyes of the world turned.
POLICE VIDEO | OFFICER 1: Oh, s--t. Shots fired. Broadcast.
POLICE VIDEO | OFFICER 2: 6A67, shots fired. Shots fired. Officer needs help. West Silver Lake Drive …
MaryLinda Moss: My daughter and I were having an afternoon together. We were getting her ready for high school. It was midafternoon when we got to the Trader Joe's. … My daughter didn't have her shoes on, so I said, "I'm gonna go in right now, and you can follow me in."
POLICE VIDEO: The gunman's car crashes into a pole right in front of Trader Joe's.
Richard Winton: He ends up crashing his car, 15 to 20 yards, from the front of a Trader Joe's supermarket.
Lynne Westafer: I was in the cheese section and I heard this loud screech – boom of a car crash.
Arta Gjonbala: It was like, "Eeerk" [imitating the sound].
MaryLinda Moss: Huge sound of impact, of crunching metal.
Lynne Westafer: And I looked at the other people who were around me and we were like, "What was that? And then we heard gunfire… boom, boom, boom, boom, boom…
Arta Gjonbala: …boom, boom, boom, boom. And that's when everyone was either running out, taking cover.
Lynne Westafer: Someone started shouting, "Get down! Get down! Get down!"
POLICE VIDEO | OFFICER 1: Hey! Shots fired, get down!
MaryLinda Moss: When I threw myself to the ground, I was … calling my daughter at the same time. … I said … "Stay in the car. … Get down. Hide in the bottom of the car. There's a shooter."
MaryLinda Moss: The gunshots had gotten louder. Somebody yelled, "The gunman is in the store."
POLICE VIDEO | OFFICER: Watch out! Oh s--t!
Cory Page: I'm sort of like rerunning every single previous mass shooting in my head … over and over again because that's what I thought was happening…
MaryLinda Moss: And then, I hear the assailant start counting down…
"WE HAVE AN ACTIVE SHOOTER"
KCAL ANCHOR: This situation still unfolding right now here at the Trader Joe's …
KCAL REPORTER: We have an active shooter …
Lynne Westafer: Oh god!
KCAL ANCHOR: He went into the back of Trader Joe's and took hostages.
KCAL ANCHOR: This is just a very tense situation…
Inside the store, strangers from all walks of life would find themselves united with one desperate goal: to get out alive.
Lynne Westafer: I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen. Like, none of us know what's going to happen here.
Lynne Westafer is a promotions producer for the CBS station KCAL, Arta Gjonbalaj is a student and model, Cory Page is an environmental associate for the Walt Disney Company and MaryLinda Moss is an art consultant.
MaryLinda Moss: I'm between these two counters … I was exposed on two sides.
MaryLinda was in the front of the store.
MaryLinda Moss: I was terrified. I didn't know what I should do … So I just stayed there.
KCAL ANCHOR: We're still waiting to see what is going on inside the store.
Lynne Westafer: There was a lot of commotion that I could not see but I could hear.
In the back of the store was Lynne.
Lynne Westafer: Screaming, the sounds of pushing and shoving and running feet.
Arta Gjonbalaj: A 100-percent, I thought it was a mass shooting.
Next to Lynne was Arta.
Arta Gjonbalaj: The first thing I thought was that we're all going to die.
Cory Page: It was mass chaos getting into the closet. People were pushing each other out of the way.
Also, in the back of the store hiding in a closet with a glass window, was Cory.
Cory Page: The closet was actually pretty small. … My knees were like, you know, almost in my mouth.
Cory Page: I took pictures while we were in there. … They are kind of like a direct reflection of what I was experiencing.
Cory Page: Inside the closet there were 21 people. … We are fully exposed. We are sitting ducks.
MaryLinda Moss: And then I saw the assailant. The gun is in his right hand and his left arm was bleeding profusely – just blood was flowing out of it.
Lynne Westafer: Every person had their phones out and they were texting. … They were all texting, texting, texting. … And I did not have my phone.
Arta Gjonbalaj: The shooter told us … "Get off your phones or you're gonna get killed." … I quickly messaged all my family members. … I thought that was the last time I was gonna talk to anybody.
Arta's mother Naze Gjonbalaj was home in New York watching the story unfold on television.
Naze Gjonbalaj [crying]: I wish I can help her.
KCAL ANCHOR: The situation, still very dangerous. An active hostage situation with an active shooter.
Naze Gjonbalaj: I didn't know what to do.
Lynne Westafer: I am not gonna die here today. There's no way. No!
Lynne Westafer: Do I run or do I stay here? When … the guy's threatening to shoot you, that's a life or death decision … I couldn't make a decision. I just was paralyzed.
Cory Page: This may be it. I'm like, "I've, you know, lived 22 years on this earth." And I was like, "that might be all that I have." … And that's when I started texting people. I texted my mom. I texted my friend who lived close by.
Lexi Kavanaugh: "Lexi, call the cops. There's a shooter inside. … Help!"
Lexi Kavanagh, 24, is Cory's best friend.
Cory Page [reading texts]: "Lexi, please do something. I'm so scared…"
Lexi Kavanaugh: He did send me several text messages that really tugged on my heartstrings.
Cory Page [reading texts]: "I love you with all my heart."
Lexi Kavanaugh: He was reiterating that he loved me continuously … That was really what started to scare me.
Cory Page [reading texts]: "Lexi, I'm terrified…"
Lexi Kavanaugh: He was terrified enough to talk to me in this way…
MaryLinda Moss: The assailant was clearly weak from the wound … but he kept on looking out to the door obviously aware that the police were out there.
What the hostages did not know was that about two hours earlier, the gunman had shot his grandmother seven times. He also injured his 17-year-old girlfriend, but because she was a minor, her name and details about her injury have never been released.
Richard Winton: What happened is the -- the gunman had a -- essentially a domestic dispute with his girlfriend and his grandmother had been involved.
Richard Winton covered the story for the Los Angeles Times.
Richard Winton: You can't have a more dangerous kind of gunman than someone who's already shot their nearest and dearest.
KCAL ANCHOR: An unknown number of people are still being held hostage …
Richard Winton: Everyone was trying to assess where this was going … how many people will he kill?
MaryLinda Moss: He looks to me and he said, "Come over here and massage my hand."… And it felt very uncomfortable. It's not what I wanted to do … but -- he has a gun, he's asking me to come over, so that's what I did.
Richard Winton: He was very obsessed with talking to those he'd already done harm to.
The gunman made frantic phone calls and learned his grandmother was still alive.
MaryLinda Moss: He then started going into shock and was shivering … He said, "There are some jackets down there" and so I very specifically said, "Would you like me to get them?" And he said, "Yes." … And as I went, I saw a woman lying behind the manager's counter. … As I walked by her, she didn't move. … I looked down and that's when I saw that she was lying in a pool of blood and it was devastating.
MaryLinda Moss: So, I said to him, "There's a woman who's been shot. And she probably needs help." And he yelled back at me, "That was the cops not me!" … And I said, "Can we get her help? Can we take her outside?" And he said, "OK."
A Trader Joe's employee brought the dying woman outside and then ran to safety. The hostages would later learn her name was Melyda Corado, known as Mely, the store manager. She was 27 years old.
MaryLinda Moss: She was doing what she was doing, running out to help somebody, because that's the kind of person that she was.
Mely was caught in the crossfire between police and the gunman -- hit by an officer's bullet.
MaryLinda Moss: And then his phone rings. It's the police. … The police officer introduced himself. He was encouraging him to let everyone go.
The gunman was told his girlfriend was also alive and headed into surgery. Then he made a demand.
MaryLinda Moss: "You get her on the phone with me, I'll turn myself in." … And then he hung up.
MaryLinda Moss: He was getting really amped up.
MaryLinda Moss: He then, within the next couple minutes, said, "How many people are in the store? Bring them here."
Lynne Westafer: Oh sh--!
A WAITING GAME
Lynne Westafer: We're in a single file, hands up. And we walk from the bread aisle down … and there is stuff scattered -- baskets overturned and there is [becomes emotional] abandoned purses and there is things knocked off the shelves and it's so empty.
Arta Gjonbalaj: I see blood all over the floor. … It looked like a murder scene, it was blood everywhere.
Arta and Lynne were among 13 hostages who were brought to the front of the store.
Arta Gjonbalaj: You look at the register and he's sitting right there. … And I saw my shopping cart that I left right in front of him.
Lynne Westafer: There's the gunman who's covered in a sweatshirt. It's got a hood up. And there's several people around him.
Arta Gjonbalaj: You see his gunshot wound in his arm.
Lynne Westafer: So, I'm trying to… take him in … and I think I see a young female Trader Joe's employee holding his hand. … I see there's this other woman who is rubbing on his back a little bit. …What is going on? Like, grab the gun for Ch----'s sake!
MaryLinda Moss: I had been massaging his shoulder … I was trying to help ground him.
MaryLinda felt she understood the gunman. She says she had a troubled childhood and began using alcohol and drugs before getting sober at the age of 18. She spent years in therapy in order to pull her life back together.
MaryLinda Moss: Over the years I have been with people who have … made … bad choices in their life … I have learned how to be present with them without judgment. … That allowed me to be present with the assailant in a way that perhaps I wouldn't have been able to be.
MaryLinda Moss: He said to me, "You have nothing to do with this. I don't want to hurt you. I don't want anybody to get hurt." … I then reached over and I put my hand on his heart … and I looked at him in his eyes, and I said, "I know you have a good heart and I know you don't want to hurt anybody." And he said, "You don't know what I did this morning." And my hand, still on his heart, I said, "It doesn't matter, I know you have a good heart, and I know you don't want to hurt anybody."
Lynne Westafer: He was a guy in so far over his head and I'm glad that that woman was able to help him. At the time I had mixed feelings about it because I just wished that someone would grab the gun and end this. That's what I kept thinking, like, "grab the gun." To be fair … if I had been sitting next to him I don't know if I could have grabbed the gun. … I wanted someone to do that, but I don't know if I could have done that. That's the truth.
Arta Gjonbalaj: When we first got to the front … he asked the Trader Joe's employee … to pick somebody from the crowd.
Lynne Westafer: I heard that young guy say, "You want me to choose?" and I thought, "Choose what?"
Arta Gjonbalaj: And I sort of put my head down because I was like, he's maybe he's trying to ask him to pick someone that he wants to shoot next.
Lynne Westafer: And he turned and he pointed at this boy who was like 13, 14. And he said, "I choose you," and I thought, "choose him for what?"
Lynne Westafer: I wanted to just like grab him … and say, "No don't choose him! What is happening?" … And then the Trader Joe's guy said, "He's letting you go," and I thought "Oh" [sighs in relief].
Arta Gjonbalaj: "You can go out with your hands up."
Lexi Kavanaugh: I have never seen so much of a police presence in my life.
While waiting for texts from her friend Cory, Lexi who lived about 5 minutes from the Trader Joe's, was glued to the television coverage.
KCAL ANCHOR: Police are getting into position, they are on tactical alert …
Lexi Kavanaugh: I saw multiple helicopters above my house, there was the S.W.A.T. team, there was a tank on the street … It looked like an apocalyptic event.
Cory Page: I definitely could hear people crying in the closet. I couldn't really pinpoint who because I couldn't see people's faces. …It's sort of like this wave. It would get super quiet and then it would get louder, people would get more comfortable and, you know, they'd whip out their phone again and start having a conversation with a loved one or the police. And then we would hear stuff from the front of the store. And so then we would all get really quiet. And it went on like that.
Cory Page: The reason why I was pushing myself further and further back under the sink was because I was convinced that there was not only one, but multiple active shooters, and it was only a matter of time before they were gonna find us.
MaryLinda Moss: We were just waiting for the phone call with the girlfriend.
Arta Gjonbalaj: We just sat there waiting. … Surprisingly, no one was like crying or screaming or yelling.
But even in the quieter moments, it was never completely silent.
Cory Page: The crazy part about being inside a grocery store is … this underlying soundtrack to the whole – the whole event.
Lynne Westafer: There was a moment when … the song that was playing was Stevie Wonder, "My Cherie Amour."
Lynne Westafer: So, Stevie Wonder then becomes the soundtrack for your nightmare. ... It was just like -- perfectly horrifying.
By now, approximately an hour had passed. In addition to the boy, other hostages had been allowed to go. A Trader Joe's employee was trying to keep up morale.
Lynne Westafer: He turned around and he said to us in the calmest voice, "It's gonna be OK. He's letting people go. I'm gonna be the last one out."
MaryLinda Moss: There was this woman, around 30 years old, she was clearly terrified. So, I asked him if he would let this woman go. … Within a minute or two, he said yes. …When she gets right in front of the door, the automatic door opens and the assailant yells, "Stop!"
Arta Gjonbalaj: As she was standing at the door, the door kept opening and closing and he said, "Do not walk out."
Lynne Westafer: "Come back here." And she took a step back towards him, and the doors opened again. He said, " Stop opening the doors."
MaryLinda Moss: She looks at me like, what am I supposed to do? … so I shook my head, "yes."
Arta Gjonbalaj: And she just jetted. She ran out of there.
Lynne Westafer: And I thought, oh great, now we're all gonna get shot.
MaryLinda Moss: He said, "She left! I told her to stop and she left!"
MaryLinda Moss: Then he asked the Trader Joe's employee who was standing there, "do you have the keys?"
Lynne Westafer: He said, "Lock the damn door."
Lynne Westafer: When that front door locked, it was like, wham, you know, it's game over.
Outside, the SWAT team made its next move.
MaryLinda Moss: The assailant looks out the door and he says, "What is that sniper doing on the roof?"
Lynne Westafer: And sure enough there was … a sniper on the roof of the cheese store, next door to the Trader Joe's.
MaryLinda Moss: The gun aimed right at us.
MaryLinda Moss: The assailant starts yelling to the police on the phone, "What is that guy doing there? Get the guy off the roof!"
Lynne Westafer: And they're screaming … "Get that guy off the roof, you've got to get him off the roof!"
What they couldn't see was that there were three sharp shooters on the roof.
MaryLinda Moss: I'm yelling to the sergeant. And the sergeant's like, "Let me see if I can reach them."
Lynne Westafer: "Why won't you get the guy off the roof? Get him off! Get him off! Why won't you do it?"
MaryLinda Moss: We were in danger in a way we had not been before that.
Lynne Westafer: This yelling … went on for five minutes. Do you know how long five minutes is in hostage time?
Arta Gjonbalaj: I was ready to run.
Lynne Westafer: Finally the gunman is so aggravated that he says, "If you don't get 'em off the roof, I'm gonna shoot somebody."
Arta Gjonbalaj: And that's when he starts counting down from five.
Lynne Westafer: I'm gonna shoot somebody in FIVE…
Arta Gjonbalaj: FOUR…
MaryLinda Moss: And I'm saying , "GET HIM OFF THE ROOF!" … THREE …
Lynne Westafer: When he got to two … the sniper climbed off the roof. Do you know how he got off the roof? Another officer climbed up and tapped him on the arm. … Like, did his walkie talkie not get charged? … How did that happen? … It almost was IT for somebody.
Lynne Westafer: After the sniper got off the roof, there was this silence. It was like the most scary sound of nothing.
Arta Gjonbalaj: We're like, OK. There's no hope in here. There's no hope.
MaryLinda, who had been trying to keep the gunman calm, also acted as an intermediary between him and the LAPD during their many phone calls.
MaryLinda Moss: And so I said into the phone to the sergeant, I said, "You need to know that we are all very, very, very scared and it is because of what just happened."
Lynne Westafer: Do you know what it feels like to be sitting on the floor of a grocery store … and you get increasingly afraid that the people who are there who are supposed to save you, are -- are making it worse for you?
Lynne Westafer: It gives me no pleasure to beat up on the LAPD, but I would not be doing my job as a witness … if I didn't say what happened here.
Richard Winton | Los Angeles Times: The hostages see the incident in one way and SWAT officers see it in a different way.
The LAPD declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation. Richard Winton says in the age of mass shootings, police are pressured to act quickly.
Richard Winton: The protocols are very different these days post Columbine. No one waits. … It's try and rush in. … Here I think at the end they ultimately decided it wasn't a mass shooter scenario that he was more of a man who has some history of mental struggles. … And that's where I think they make the fine line decision. Don't rush in, let's try and talk him down.
But Winton says the LAPD didn't know what to make of MaryLinda.
Richard Winton: SWAT negotiators are used to dealing with the person directly. They want to hear their voice, they want to know what their tone is, they want to understand what's going on exactly from them.
Back in the closet, the hostages watched snippets of the drama in silence.
Cory Page: I think when you are surrounded by 20-plus people in a room that is no bigger than like an average closet, everyone's deepest and darkest personalities will come out.
Cory Page: This guy, there were, like five or so knives on a magnet on the wall cause it was the food prep area for where they give out the samples … and he and another person grabbed a knife and they were like, "If things go south, like we're gonna, we're gonna take him down." And it immediately terrified me. Because I knew … we needed to stay as quiet and as undiscovered as possible.
In the front of the store, a new LAPD negotiator called to say an officer was being sent to the hospital to talk to the gunman's girlfriend.
MaryLinda Moss: It was starting to feel like they were just delaying and he was getting more frustrated.
Arta Gjonbalaj: Our lives are on the line for a phone call.
Then, more pressure from the LAPD.
MaryLinda Moss: The assailant looks towards the door … "What is that truck doing there?" And I look … and there is a SWAT truck, right in front of the door.
MaryLinda Moss: And he starts with the new negotiator, "What are you doing, what's that SWAT truck doing there, get it out of there." … And so they back it up, like a foot [laughs]. And then stop.
MaryLinda Moss: And I think he realized that there was not gonna be a better way out of here. … He said, "Get me my call with my girlfriend …"
LAPD OFFICER: OK that – that – that works for me. Just – OK. Do me a favor, just hang tight.
MaryLinda Moss: "… send handcuffs in ..."
LAPD OFFICER: He says, "If you guys could – would – would throw a – throw a set of handcuffs in…"
MaryLinda Moss: "…I will let myself be handcuffed and give over my gun and I will turn myself in." And then he hung up the phone. … And I was like, "that was it, that was the solution. …We've got our way out!"
AN EXIT STRATEGY
As the frightening standoff continued, the frustrated gunman repeated his demands to the police negotiator.
KCAL REPORTER: The suspect is barricaded. Police are trying to get him to surrender…
MaryLinda Moss: So the assailant said … "send in the handcuffs, get my call with my girlfriend, and I'll turn myself in."
Lynne Westafer: The gunman believed that if he walked out handcuffed he was less likely to be shot by the police. So there was a long negotiation to try to get the police to give a pair of handcuffs. … Finally, they agreed.
Lynne Westafer: And a young man who has been a customer in the store – Mike … was gonna walk to the front door and he was gonna get the handcuffs.
Mike D'Angelo had been quietly assisting MaryLinda from the beginning.
MaryLinda Moss: Mike had already been going and getting things for the assailant.
Mary Linda Moss: I mean we really … depended on each other.
MaryLinda Moss: I told the negotiator … "Mike is coming out. … He's coming to get the handcuffs."
Lynne Westafer: So Mike starts to walk towards the door.
MaryLinda Moss: The Trader Joe's employee unlocks the door…
Chris Ritzen | "48 Hours" producer: Were you scared?
Mike D'Angelo: Yeah, we didn't know what was gonna happen next.
KCAL CHOPPER AUDIO: This is NOT the suspect. Now this is NOT the suspect.
MaryLinda Moss: And then I see the SWAT team member … start gesturing strongly for Mike to come out. …And both Mike and I at the same time start yelling, "No, no, no, no-no-no-no-no-no-no!" I'm like, I'm into the phone, "No, no, no, no. … Throw the handcuffs in."
Lynne Westafer: Now Mike, bravely, is standing at the doorway saying, "Give me the handcuffs." … All the while officers are trying to get him to leave.
Mike D'Angelo: And I said, "There's no way I'm leaving these people here."
Lynne Westafer: The gunman was saying … "Don't you go out that door, you better bring those handcuffs back here."
MaryLinda Moss: He'd already said, "I'm going to get myself handcuffed … I'm gonna turn myself in. …The trust that we had developed was key in him following through with what he had said.
Lynne Westafer: After many more minutes of yelling, screaming… that panic, just that screeching losing your voice kind of shouting…
MaryLinda Moss: No-no-no-no. … No-no-no-no-no! "Throw the handcuffs! Throw the handcuffs!" I'm yelling out the door. I'm yelling into the phone…
Lynne Westafer: There was this "thunk" [claps her hands] as the handcuffs hit the linoleum.
MaryLinda Moss: And the assailant jumps and tenses. And I – and I'm like, "It's the handcuffs."… And I say, "Mike, pick up the handcuffs! Show him it's the handcuffs!"
Lynne Westafer: And then Mike walked back in…
MaryLinda Moss: And then we have the handcuffs.
Lynne Westafer: What a hero.
Mike D'Angelo: I didn't want to let the people down or anybody to get hurt. So I stayed.
Richard Winton: There was a lot of reluctance on the part of the police to give him the handcuffs. He could take the handcuffs and handcuff himself to a hostage and make them a human shield. So, they had to really buy into this idea that he would handcuff himself.
KCAL CHOPPER AUDIO: They've got the suspect on the phone. But they're trying to get the girlfriend to talk to him or something…
MaryLinda Moss: He then is getting more and more frustrated with them not getting his girlfriend on the phone.
MaryLinda Moss: The assailant said to me, "They're not trying to get her." I said, "Of course they are." … This is our way out.
MaryLinda Moss: This is a guy who's saying he's gonna let himself out if you get him a f---ing phone call! Right?
MaryLinda Moss: When we were waiting to hear about his girlfriend … he said, "It's all over. It doesn't matter what happens to me. … I'm in for life."
MaryLinda Moss: I said to him I had known people who had been in prison for many years, and who had made lives for themselves inside prison. … And that there was always hope.
MaryLinda Moss: And he said to me, "I wish I had met you earlier. I just needed somebody to talk to."
At just about that time, the negotiator called. The police had finally contacted the gunman's injured girlfriend. She recorded a short message.
MaryLinda Moss: And she said, "I'm OK. Go outside. I'm OK. Go outside." … She said it three times. … And that clearly gave him the relief that he was looking for. … He never asked again for a phone call. That was enough.
With his demands met, he released more hostages. Arta noticed a mother and daughter were about to be let go.
Arta Gjonbalaj: At that point, something told me, pretend she's your mom. … So I grabbed her hand and she grabs mine back.
The gunman then asked, "Is this also your daughter?"
Arta Gjonbalaj: And she said, "Yes, this is my daughter." And he said, "You can get up and go with your sister."
And just like that, Arta was free and allowed to leave with her "sister."
Arta Gjonbalaj: I just walked out as fast as I can.
Moments later, the woman who risked her life pretending to be her mom was also released.
Arta Gjonbalaj: I gave her the biggest hug in the whole world.
And then Arta called her real mom.
Naze Gjonbalaj: Everything is OK because I got my daughter alive.
Arta Gjonbalaj: It was just a lot of tears at that point. … It was relief, but it was also, "Wow, that was the closest I've ever been to death."
Next, it was Lynne's turn.
Lynne Westafer: Most of the other hostages, when they were leaving, turned to him and they said [she whispers], "Thank you. Thank you." … I was just getting madder and madder.
Lynne Westafer: And when I stood up, I very intentionally did not look at him … because I thought, if I turned around to say anything to him, I wouldn't be saying, "thank you." I'd be saying, "f--- you." And that would be bad for everybody. … So I just looked straight ahead … and out I went.
The police had negotiated a plan with the assailant to leave the store and surrender safely. But he was still there with four hostages and still holding the gun.
MaryLinda Moss: He was afraid to walk down the long aisle to the door where they could see him. … He was afraid he was gonna get shot.
MaryLinda Moss: I actually turned to him. I took his face in my hands. … I said … "Do you trust me?" And he said, "Yes."
MaryLinda Moss: But he's still thinking that they're gonna shoot him. So I looked at the other three … and I say, "Should we go out together?" And they all three shake their head, "Yes. We'll go out together."
MaryLinda Moss: So I ask him if he's ready to be handcuffed, and he says, "Yes."
MaryLinda Moss: And then I ask him if I can take the gun, and he says, "Yes."
MaryLinda Moss: So I then ask him, "Are you ready?" He said, "Ah, I need a little bit more time." As we're waiting, I heard a noise on the roof. … And it scared me.
MaryLinda Moss: So I didn't ask for permission.
MaryLinda Moss: I said, "It's time to do this now."
A PEACEFUL END
MaryLinda Moss: The negotiator said, "OK, we're ready." … I look to the other three. We all stand up together. I'm in front of him. The others kinda circle behind him.
KCAL CHOPPER AUDIO: They're close to getting him out. But I don't know …
KCAL CHOPPER AUDIO: I see some shadows…
MaryLinda Moss: We walked down and we get to the door, the door opens.
KCAL CHOPPER AUDIO: Here they come.
MaryLinda Moss: We take a step out.
Richard Winton: Everyone expected him to come last, on his own. But they kind of came with him. … Almost like making sure he was OK, 'cause he was bleeding.
MaryLinda Moss: We are descended upon. A lot of SWAT team members.
As the hostages were taken away, the gunman whose name is Gene Atkins, surrendered without a fight.
MaryLinda Moss: I was aware of them taking Gene over to handle him, but I was really like, it was done. … That's when I felt the relief.
But for Cory and the 20 others who were still hiding in the closet, it would take 15 long minutes before the SWAT team freed them.
Cory Page: I put my hands up and we filed out of the closet. … I just immediately started crying. Every bit of emotion that I had bottled up because I didn't want to either make noise or I didn't want to express how I was really feeling while I was inside of there, it all came out.
Down the street waiting for Cory was his best friend Lexi, whose text messages kept him calm during his darkest moments.
Lexi Kavanaugh: We just held each other so close and that's when I cracked. … I could feel all of that hardened adrenaline … wear off and relax and I just sort of like melted and broke down a little bit. … I told him I loved him a million times.
KCAL ANCHOR: Well the good news is again it appears that this has been brought to a peaceful end. That suspect, we're told, emerged from the Trader Joe's …
It had been more than three grueling hours. MaryLinda, who had worked so hard to keep everyone safe, was free.
MaryLinda Moss: I saw my daughter, my husband and my son -- my daughter starts running toward me. …She runs into my arms and I hug her and then I hug my husband and he says, "I am so proud of you and so mad at you" [laughs].
The next day, an impromptu memorial was set up outside Trader Joe's to honor Mely Corado.
Mely Corado's friend: The Corado family has lost their sweet, funny and loving daughter, sister and friend.
Seven days later, her family held a public funeral.
Mely's Corado's father: I don't know where you go when you die, but I hope when I do, I end up with Mely.
Even though a police bullet killed Mely, Gene Atkins, now 29, was charged with her death for setting the events in motion.
Atkins was charged with a total of 51 felony counts including attempted murder and kidnapping.
Before this happened, Atkins had only minor scrapes with the law. He was raised by the very woman he's now accused of shooting – his grandmother, who survived. He's looking at a possible sentence of life in prison.
To work through their trauma, MaryLinda, Lynne, Cory and many of the other hostages from that day get together regularly to talk and to heal.
MaryLinda Moss: I'm just now starting to process it. Just now.
Cyrani Ackerman | Hostage survivor [at group meeting]: I'm shocked at some of the feelings that I have, in thinking about him and thinking about the incident.
Cory Page: The really remarkable part of this story, sort of the diamond in the rough … I have this whole group of like new best friends from different, you know, age ranges, different backgrounds that we just all happened to be at the place at the same time. … It's really been everything for me.
Lynne Westafer [at group meeting]: Just to feel whole again, it's kind of miraculous … I didn't actually think that was possible. There was a time when I thought, "there's – this is done, like who I am is gone."
Lynne Westafer: You have these moments where it's emotional and you think like, "God, I can't believe I'm alive" … And then there's other times where the sunlight will spike off of something and it's just beautiful and you think, "Oh, my god. I'm alive."
Gene Atkins' trial is scheduled to begin in April 2020.
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