LOS ANGELES — A man accused of engaging in a gunfight with Los Angeles police at a Trader Joe’s store in Silver Lake, leading to the fatal shooting of the assistant manager, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder and more than 50 other charges.
Gene Evin Atkins, 29, is accused of setting off a chain of events on July 21, 2018, that led to the death of Melyda Maricela Corado, who was fatally shot by a police officer in front of the store in the 2700 block of Hyperion Avenue.
Atkins was ordered Sept. 3 to stand trial on 51 counts, including murder, attempted murder, attempted murder of a peace officer, assault on a peace officer with a semiautomatic firearm, kidnapping, fleeing a pursuing peace officer’s motor vehicle while driving recklessly, grand theft of an automobile, discharge of a firearm with gross negligence, shooting at an occupied motor vehicle, false imprisonment of a hostage and mayhem.
Prosecutors added three new counts — one count of second-degree robbery and two counts of assault with a firearm — against Atkins last week.
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore confirmed last year 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 following a tense standoff inside the store, where a number of customers and employees were held hostage.
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, in which he allegedly shot his 76-year-old grandmother and his 17-year-old girlfriend in South Los Angeles, then took his grandmother’s car and led police on a wild chase during which he tried to carjack a white Jeep Wrangler at gunpoint at a gas station.
He allegedly fired shots at police during the chase, and again when he got out of the car following a crash and fled into the store, holding customers and employees at gunpoint inside before surrendering hours later.
During a four-day hearing in which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar ultimately determined there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, LAPD Officer Sinlen Tse testified that he returned fire after Atkins, who was shot in the left forearm during the gun battle, got out of the damaged vehicle and began firing toward police.
Another officer, Cesar Corona, told the judge that he saw the back window of the Toyota Camry that Atkins was driving shatter during the pursuit, and that he heard a police radio broadcast from other officers that shots were being fired toward them. He said he heard a bullet whiz by him from the direction of the Trader Joe’s, was in fear of getting shot and ducked behind a small wall for cover, and subsequently heard a “ping” as if a bullet had struck a metal pole near him and other officers.
Deputy District Attorney Tannaz Mokayef told the judge that Atkins shot at the officers as they pursued the Camry and that he “continued his premeditated assault” on the officers from both outside and inside the store.
The judge also heard testimony from a series of witnesses, including Trader Joe’s customers and employees, who testified that they were fearful to try to leave the store during the standoff since Atkins was armed with a handgun. Several said they heard Atkins threaten a police negotiator that people would be brought out in body bags unless police snipers moved from a nearby rooftop.
Store employee Nolan Klosterman said he believed those inside the store were being used as “bargaining chips” during Atkins’ negotiations with police.
When asked if he was afraid for his safety, Klosterman said, “Yes, because I was in a threatening situation. I was a hostage. There was a gun,” he said, noting that there was also a lot of blood on the floor. “The picture paints itself. It was terrifying.”
Another Trader Joe’s worker said Atkins directed him and a male customer to move Corado’s body from the store, where she had retreated after being shot.