SILVER LAKE -- The suspect in last summer's deadly standoff and hostage-taking at Trader Joe's said people would be "dragged out in body bags" from the Hyperion Avenue market if a police sharpshooter atop a nearby building didn't leave, one of the customers testified today.
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 the alleged murder of store manager Melyda "Mely" Corado, who was fatally wounded by an officer's bullet during a gun battle.
The L.A. Police Department has confirmed 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.
Several customers and employees took to the stand today to offer harrowing first-hand accounts of what happened inside the store during the shooting and standoff.
Prosecution witness Arta Gjonbalaj, who was waiting in line to pay at Trader Joe's during on a Saturday afternoon, 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."
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.
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.
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 allegedly 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.
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.
Atkins, who is being held on $15.1 million bail, 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.