L.A. Story

The compassion of MaryLinda Moss ’86 ensured that a hostage situation didn’t have a more tragic ending

First she heard the chilling sounds of a serious car crash: the squealing of brakes, the screeching of tires, the slamming of metal.

Next came the wail of sirens. That was quick, MaryLinda Moss thought in the fleeting moment before the eruption of gunfire. Too quick.

When the shooting started, she instinctively dropped to the floor behind a counter in the Trader Joe’s where she had stopped to grab a snack. A Type 1 diabetic, her blood sugar was low, so she’d eaten a few dried bananas on her way to the checkout.

From her crouching position she called her 14-year-old daughter, who was waiting in the parking lot. “Stay in the car,” Moss pleaded. The call was dropped before she finished talking, so she tapped the number again. Voicemail. Now the shots were getting louder. She tried a third time. Ellis answered.

“Hide in the bottom of the car. There’s a shooter in the store.”

Moss’s brain began to process the situation. She was safe from any bullets coming from the front of the store, but if the shooter moved deeper inside, she was exposed. As she debated whether to move, and if so to where, she noticed a man lying in front of her.

“I see blood saturating his back and dripping onto the floor,” she recalls. The injured man wasn’t a shopper or Trader Joe’s employee.

He was the assailant.

What happened next is the only part of the ordeal—in which she played perhaps the critical role in deescalating—that Moss says she doesn’t remember clearly.

“I don’t know whether he asked for help or whether I just offered help,” she says. But help she did. He was hit on his lower arm, so she took off a shirt she was wearing over a tank top and began wrapping it around the wound. As she worked, she realized he was still clutching his handgun—which was aimed at her.

“I asked if he could point it away because it was making me uncomfortable,” she says.

“Sorry,” he replied as he lowered it.

She wouldn’t learn his name until hours later.

July 21, another sunny, perfect Southern California Saturday, started much differently for MaryLinda Moss and Gene Atkins.

As she embarked on a day of back-to-school clothes shopping with her daughter in the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood north of downtown Los Angeles, he allegedly got into a dispute at his grandmother Mary Madison’s south L.A. home. After shooting the 76-year-old multiple times (a bullet also grazed his 17-year-old girlfriend), he led police on a 14-minute high-speed car chase through the city that ended when he crashed outside the grocery store in which Moss was shopping.

In the ensuing shootout, 27-year-old Melyda Corado, the store’s manager, was caught in the crossfire. She died after being struck by a bullet from what later was determined to be a police officer’s gun. When Moss, 55, came to the aid of Atkins, 28, she had no knowledge of these events.

A theater major at TU, Moss is a sculptor and installation artist who now works procuring fine art works for her interior designer clients. She’s battled demons of her own. Sober since the age of 18, she credits various forms of counseling, including art therapy and energy healing, that she both received and studied with helping her find her way in life.

Her background would prove vital during the standoff that unfolded during the next three hours.

“I believed him when he said he didn’t want to hurt us, but I knew we all needed him to believe and remember it. I was very conscious of what I was doing. I reached over and put my hand on his heart. I said, ‘I know you have a good heart and I know you don’t want to hurt anybody.’”

That Atkins was wounded before he came into the store was “a game changer,” Moss says.

“He was weak, he needed us, and he was open for what I was eventually able to offer him.”

With Atkins shivering most likely from shock, Moss set out to find him a jacket.

It was on this mission that she discovered Corado lying behind the manager’s station, near a rack of Trader Joe’s sweatshirts.

She convinced Atkins to let shopper Mike D’Angelo and another man carry Corado out.

There were about a dozen people in the front of the store, including D’Angelo, who had fulfilled his promise to return. (Unbeknownst to Atkins or Moss at the time, dozens more were hiding in closets, bathrooms and food storage areas in the back.) Before he allowed a man whose two young children were in the car to leave, Atkins took the man’s phone, which the police then called to begin negotiations.

Holding the phone, which was on speaker, Moss slipped into the role of intermediary. When the LAPD officer on the other end started demanding that Atkins release the remaining hostages, she could sense him becoming agitated, and interjected.

“I would say, ‘hold on,’ ‘let’s slow down,’ ‘pause for a minute,’ ‘stop,’” she says. “I was able to calm things down as he was getting amped up.”

As the SWAT team arrived Moss began to fear that what she thought was a somewhat stable situation had a greater chance of turning violent. After Atkins saw a sharpshooter on the roof of a cheese shop across the parking lot, he began yelling at the sergeant on the phone.

“Somebody else is going to be killed and it’s going to be your fault just like it was with that other woman!”

It was among the scariest moments of the entire day, Moss said. Eventually, the police removed the sniper, which temporarily diffused the situation. Despite disagreeing with some of their tactics that day, Moss does not judge the police. She knows she had what they did not possess and could not get: Gene Atkins’s trust.

In the early moments of the standoff, Atkins told Moss, “I’m in for life. I shot at a cop,” to which she responded, “There’s always hope.” Much as she perceived that he didn’t want to commit any more violence, perhaps he sensed the truth in her words.

“It’s not like I went in there one person and walked out another,” she says. “Who I was in that situation was very much who I am, but it was heightened. Later on, during the course of negotiating with the police he said to me, ‘I just needed somebody to talk to. I wish I had met you earlier.’ I felt compassion for him, and I said, ‘I’m sorry.’”

At one point Atkins allowed Moss to text her husband, Richard.

“I am safe. It’s complicated,” she wrote. Then: “Stop texting.” “It’s ok.” “I can’t text anymore.” To the end of that line she added two heart emojis.

After police played a recording of his girlfriend for Atkins, he began to plan his surrender. By this time Moss had convinced him to release all but four of
the hostages—herself, D’Angelo, and two Trader Joe’s employees. Still, Atkins was holding his 9 mm gun and did not trust that the police wouldn’t shoot him.
He asked for a pair of handcuffs, an idea Moss called “brilliant.” But he wanted to walk through the back of the store, where he couldn’t be seen, out to the front, a plan she vehemently opposed.

“I turned to him and I took his face in my hands and I said, ‘You have to know that that scares the shit out of me.’ I’m 55, I’ve been around a little bit longer. You need to believe me.’”

Tired, despondent and resigned to his fate, Atkins allowed Moss to cuff his hands in front of him. She put the gun in a reusable Trader Joe’s bag, the kind usually filled with organic green tea and cauliflower-crust frozen pizza.

“I know a lot of people who had horrible, tragic things happen in their lives, things they have done that they have terrible guilt over, and have turned their lives around and found a way to find grace in their lives,” she says.

“I reached over and put my hand on his heart. I said, ‘I know you have a good heart and I know you don’t want to hurt anybody.’”

“Self-forgiveness can lead to a way to give back to the world. So I said to him, ‘I know people who have been in prison who have ended up finding a life for themselves. I’m going to find you and I’m going to talk to you again. I’m not just saying that, I am. Will you do me a favor, will you promise me that you won’t give up until we get a chance to talk again?’”

He said yes.

Atkins, shackled, and his four hostages then walked out of the store together and were
immediately swarmed by the SWAT team.

Moss tearfully embraced her husband and two children, who were waiting at a staging area nearby. She says she plans to honor her word
and speak with Atkins, who is facing 51 felony charges and life behind bars, again.

“His actions that day led to a lot of people being hurt, and that’s on him,” she says. “But I know that I haven’t processed it all.

The outpouring that I’ve gotten from people has been overwhelming and beautiful and heartwarming and a little disconcerting. I did what I did because it made sense to me in the moment. When people say, you’re a hero, or, oh my god we’re so lucky that you were there, it’s hard to take in. This is humbling because it doesn’t feel like I did something special.

I feel like I was able to do what I did because of all of the gifts that I’ve gotten in life. I just did what made sense, and I did what I feel like we all have the capacity to do. No matter what you go through, if you find a way through it and use it as an opportunity, there’s always a gift that you’re going to get. That’s how I try to live my life.”

Because of that, others in Trader Joe’s on that fateful Saturday in July will get to live theirs.

By Mike Unger

While inside the store MaryLinda Moss exchanged text messages with her husband, Richard, and daughter, Ellis.