LOS ANGELES – A feud between a man and his grandmother over his girlfriend staying at the grandmother’s home exploded into violence that ultimately led to him taking dozens of people hostage inside a Los Angeles supermarket, a relative said Sunday.
Investigators believe Gene Evin Atkins, 28, shot his grandmother several times and wounded his girlfriend at their South Los Angeles home on Saturday afternoon before he led police on a chase, while exchanging gunfire with officers, crashed into a pole outside the Trader Joe’s in the city’s Silver Lake section and ran inside.
Atkins was booked Sunday on suspicion of murder after an employee was killed as he ran into the supermarket, police said.
His cousin, Charlene Egland, told The Associated Press that he had been arguing with his grandmother — who had raised him since he was 7 years old — “on and off for about two or three weeks” over his girlfriend staying at the elderly woman’s home.
“She didn’t want the girl over there anymore,” Egland said.
On Saturday, Atkins’ grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Madison, 76, was walking back into the home and told her grandson “he needs to turn some of them TVs off” when he shot her, she said.
Egland said she heard about six gunshots before another cousin came running from the porch and shouted to Egland, “I think Gene shot my mama!”
The girlfriend was grazed in the head, police said.
Egland said she ran to call 911 and waited for an ambulance to arrive. At the same time, police said Atkins stole his grandmother’s car and forced his girlfriend into the vehicle.
Officers tracked the car using a stolen-vehicle tracking system and tried to stop the man in Hollywood, but he refused to pull over, police said. During the chase, he fired at officers, shooting out the back window of his car.
More gunfire ensued before Atkins crashed into a pole outside the supermarket. The man exchanged gunfire with police again and that’s when a 27-year-old Trader Joe’s employee, Melyda Corado, was shot and killed, Police Chief Michel Moore said. Officers escorted the girlfriend from the vehicle.
Customers and employees frantically dove for cover and barricaded themselves inside storerooms and bathrooms as bullets fired by police shattered the store’s glass doors.
As he heard gunfire, Sean Gerace, who was working in the back of the supermarket, grabbed several of his co-workers and the group made their way into an upstairs storage area. He grabbed a folding ladder and tossed it out a window, helping his colleagues escape to safety, he told KNBC-TV.
“I grabbed an emergency ladder, barricaded the hallway, grabbed a weapon, put the ladder out the window and just tried to get the attention of the SWAT officer,” Gerace told the television station.
About three hours later, Atkins — who had been shot in the left arm — agreed to handcuff himself and walked out the front door, surrounded by four of the hostages. He was being held on $2 million bail Sunday and it wasn’t clear if he had an attorney to comment on the allegations.
A gun was found in the store, police said.
A 22-year-old woman was wounded by glass fragments and later took herself to a hospital, police said.
The Fire Department took six people to hospitals for non-life threatening conditions or injuries, police said.
Atkins’ grandmother initially was taken to a hospital in critical condition and police said she had been shot seven times but Egland, who visited Madison at the hospital on Sunday, said she had only been shot three times, had undergone surgery and her condition was improving.
Atkins, who has two daughters, bounced between several jobs, including working as a security guard, but had been repeatedly fired, Egland said. His license to work as a security guard expired in November 2017, according to state records. It was not clear whether the particular license he possessed would have allowed him to legally carry a firearm.
His grandmother had also tried to help him find employment and “was just trying to make him do better,” Egland said.
Atkins never grew violent toward his grandmother before, Egland said, but she started to grow concerned about him over the last several weeks because he seemed upset and distant.
“He didn’t seem right to me,” Egland said. “I’m just devastated.”
On Sunday, grieving family members, co-workers and customers remembered Corado, the Trader Joe’s worker, as lively, hardworking and always smiling. A makeshift memorial of flowers, candles and notes grew on the sidewalk outside of the store on Sunday.
“I’m sad to say she didn’t make it. My baby sister. My world,” her brother, Albert Corado said on Twitter.
Trader Joe’s said the store — known by customers as a neighborhood hangout with great customer service — would remain closed for the foreseeable future to give their employees time to process and grieve.
“Yesterday marks the saddest day in Trader Joe’s history as we mourn the loss of one our own,” company spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with her family, and our Crew Members and customers who experienced this terrifying and unimaginable ordeal.”
Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Robert Jablon contributed to this report.