“They all heard the crunch of the frozen egg and just broke down laughing,” said Smith, 20. “I got a good laugh out of Rikki.”
The trio left the upstairs employee break room and headed back to work at 2:19 p.m. Smith and Olds walked down the stairs together. See you later, they said, and parted ways.
Eleven minutes later, Smith had just made a coffee for his friend and coworker Denny Stong.
“He was walking out with it when the first shots were fired,” Smith said. He would never see his friend again.
Over the next hour, a gunman terrorized the large Boulder grocery store, killing 10 people and shattering both a tight-knit workplace and a larger community’s sense of security around an everyday task — grocery shopping, the most basic of routines. The mass shooting, Colorado’s worst since a gunman killed 12 and injured 70 in an Aurora movie theater in 2012, became the latest in a state that is all too familiar with high-profile, large-scale violence.
The attack also came within a week of a killing spree in the Atlanta area, where a gunman fatally shot eight people at three spas. The back-to-back incidents ended a year-long stretch during the pandemic when America seemed to have escaped shootings with such high victim counts.
In the days after the March 22 attack, The Denver Post interviewed two dozen witnesses and survivors. Reporters also pored over police records, radio traffic and video taken at the scene to determine how the shooting unfolded over nearly 58 minutes.
Together, the accounts and records portray an intense ferocity that played out in the initial minutes, followed by long stretches of eerie quiet — punctuated by the shooter’s bizarre behavior — creating awful suspense for employees and shoppers who hid out of sight, as well as uneasiness for police as they prepared to confront the gunman.
The first shots were cause for confusion more than anything else.
Mark Naughton thought the first bang might have been a car crash, except that it repeated again and again in staccato blasts, loud and violent outside his apartment window. He started recording the scene on his camera phone at 2:30 p.m.
In the King Soopers parking lot across Table Mesa Drive, a heavyset man in jeans and a green tactical vest had opened fire, killing a person inside a van — Neven Stanisic, a 23-year-old repairman who’d fixed a coffee machine in the Starbucks kiosk.
With a high-powered rifle pressed to his shoulder, the gunman moved from the west to the east on the store’s north side. He walked across the parking lot toward the center entrance road and then the grocery store. He moved steadily and did not run. He was firing as he stepped off the sidewalk and into the road, and he shot a man who was running away, pulling the trigger twice.
“He shot him from about 12 feet away,” Naughton said. “It looked like he had a short kind of assault rifle.”
When the man fell, other witnesses told police, the gunman stood over him and shot him again — several times.
Police later confirmed that the shooting suspect, identified as 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, carried a Ruger AR-556 pistol — equipped to function similarly to a rifle, with a longer-than-normal barrel — and a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun. He kept firing the Ruger as he moved toward the store’s eastern entrance. Police later would say they don’t believe Alissa ever fired the 9 mm.
At the entrance, Louis Saxton, 18, was holding a package of frozen mixed berries and a container of apple juice as he walked out, listening to a Harry Styles song in his earphones. Over the music he heard two pops. Then another man shouted at him.
“He was just yelling, ‘Run, run, run!’ ” said Saxton, a University of Colorado Boulder music student from Minnesota who lives in an apartment nearby. Instinct took over. He sprinted out to his car and “drove over the curb to get out of there as fast as I could.”
He never saw the gunman, who shot another person on the ramp just outside the store’s eastern entrance, then ran through the sliding glass doors.
Just inside, the gunman shot Rikki Olds, a 25-year-old service manager who was working the self-checkout lines. Before she was gunned down, Smith said, she moved as if she thought about locking the doors.
Smith, who’d first run into the parking lot and saw the shooter kill a customer, yelled for other shoppers to run. Then he helped his co-worker, a 69-year-old Taiwanese woman, hide in a corner under the Starbucks counter, pushing garbage cans around her.
“My heart was probably beating 180 beats per minute,” Smith said.
He tried to hide behind another trash can, but at 6-foot-4, it was hard to conceal his frame in such a small space. He thought about what he could use to protect himself and his coworker.
“Memories of active shooter drills during my education kicked in,” he said.
All around the store, shoppers and employees ran or hid, dropping groceries and abandoning carts in the aisles. Ryan Borowski had just grabbed a bag of Boulder Canyon chips from the end of an aisle when he heard the clap of a gunshot.
“The first thought was a hope that it wasn’t,” he said. “The second shot shattered that hope. By the third shot, we were running.”
In the stock room, employees were still working, unaware of what was happening at the front of the store. Suddenly there was an influx of people fleeing, including Borowski, who was still carrying his chips and a 12-pack of Cherry Cokes, which he eventually dropped.
“We were telling them, ‘Gun, gun, gun! Shooter! Run for your life!’” Borowski said. He escaped out a back loading dock, along with several other people.
In the store, deli worker Hannah Dill had just scooped corn and macaroni and cheese into cups for a two-piece, dark meat chicken meal for Amos Plentywolf, then 20, and his wife, Angelina Romero-Chavez, 23, when they heard the shots.
“Pop,” Plentywolf recalled. “Two seconds. Pop.”
In those first moments as their world froze, “There was a weird buzz energy in the air already. We just stopped and paused. We thought, there’s no way this is happening,” Dill said.
At 2:32 p.m., she texted her sister: “Someone is shooting the building up. I love you.”
Then she ran as a manager yelled, “Go, go, go!”
Nearby at the cheese counter, manager Darcey Lopez was afraid she’d be exposed if she made for an emergency exit, or even the deli’s cooler. So Lopez, 46, who had been just about to end her shift, balled herself up inside a cabinet beneath the wrapping station as much as she could. Her much taller coworker tried his best to conceal himself on the floor, too.
The stench of the powerful disinfectant used on the floors was all they could smell.
Calls from the grocery store flooded into 911. Just before 2:33 p.m., the first alert scratched across police radios.
“We have a report of a shooting in progress, King Soopers, 3600 Table Mesa,” a dispatcher said.
Sirens wailed outside the store as police rushed to the scene.
The first officers arrived within two minutes. A female officer appeared to be first, followed by a male officer, according to Naughton’s cell phone video. The two gathered gear from the cargo spaces of their Boulder police SUVs, then started sprinting toward the store. The male officer carried a rifle.
As those two approached the east entrance, a third Boulder police cruiser raced into the parking lot, screeched to a stop at the entrance and a male officer jumped out to join the other two running into the store, Naughton’s video showed.
Although the video does not identify the officers, Boulder police said Friday that Officer Eric Talley entered the store within 30 seconds of his arrival.
“Talley, (inaudible) and myself are going in,” a female officer said over police radio around 2:37 p.m.
Bystanders shouted at the officers that the shooter was inside, that they last saw him in the back of the store.
“They didn’t hesitate at all,” said Naughton, still watching from his apartment window across the street. “I couldn’t believe how brave they were. They sprinted right in.”
The gunman fired twice at police. Talley, 51, was fatally shot in the head. He fell about 30 feet inside the east entrance. Other officers, at first, didn’t know whether he was still alive.
“Officer down inside the building!” a male officer shouted on the radio.
Police and the shooter exchanged gunfire. At one point, the gunman fired at Officer Richard Steidell, moving as he pulled the trigger.
“He’s hitting us!” an officer reported on his radio.
No other customers or employees were shot after officers engaged the gunman, Boulder police said in a tweet on Friday.
Balled up below the cheese counter, Lopez listened to shot after shot. Without a view of what was happening, she resigned herself to the likelihood that the shooter would find her and kill her.
“I was ready to go,” she said.
From the beginning, the bangs reverberated through the store, echoed, and she couldn’t tell where the shooter was — or how many there might be.
“It was like ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. Ba-ba-ba-ba,” she said. “It stopped, and we thought he was done. And then he started shooting again.”
From his hiding spot at Starbucks, Smith, a gun enthusiast, tried to decipher the caliber of rounds being fired and how many shooters might be in the building.
Dill, Plentywolf, Romero-Chavez and a Japanese couple who work at the sushi bar ran and hid together in a second-floor storage room above the deli. It didn’t have a door, so they pushed a rolling cart stacked with boxes in front of the doorframe. They stacked more boxes, containing supplies including coffee, chopsticks and other things used by baristas and sushi chefs, to barricade themselves in.
The Japanese man stood by the doorway, watching down the steps for anyone who might enter. The women huddled against a wall behind shelves and boxes. Amos Plentywolf stood by another door that led to an electrical room.
Downstairs, Dill said, they could hear the store manager talking over the loudspeaker, instructing everyone to get out: “Attention. If there’s anyone in the store, please get to an emergency exit now.”
Amos Plentywolf’s mother had been waiting for the couple in the parking lot outside — it was a quick stop for laundry detergent — and as they hid, she called him over and over again. He answered once to tell her they were in a supply closet and needed to be quiet.
Then he turned off his phone, afraid the ring would give them up. “It was really loud, like ding, ding, ding,” he said.
“He hung up on me,” Semele Plentywolf recalled. “I kept trying to call him and text him. There was no answer. I was freaking out.”
Romero-Chavez’s mother also was panicking. Her daughter had sent a text, but the phone’s battery died right after she pressed send.
She wrote: “There has been a shooting at King Soopers. Me and Amos are in a storage closet.”
“Those are the last words I sent,” Romero-Chavez said.
As they hid, she could hear gunshots and what she believes was the shooter moving around, mumbling at times — and laughing.
“We could hear a man chuckling,” Romero-Chavez said. “Gunshots were close. We believe it was him chuckling.”
Police also reported on the radio, “This guy is laughing at us.”
Outside, a massive police response was underway. Officers called for shields, armored vehicles and the SWAT team. They asked for a medical staging area to be set up on Broadway and for a medical helicopter.
About 2:50 p.m., a police armored vehicle repeatedly rammed into the building and broke the store’s front windows. At that moment, the shooter was about 15 feet from the Starbucks, where Smith and his coworker hid.
The gunman didn’t say a word after the windows were smashed, but he started pushing stacks of hand-held, plastic shopping baskets from west to east and around a wall. Smith could not see what he was doing with them, but he could see the shooter was not holding his gun.
His movements were quick and sporadic. His head kept turning, like it was on a swivel.
“It was the weirdest thing,” Smith said. “He was pushing them in the same direction. One stack after another.”
Throughout, Smith’s mind raced to think of how he could defend himself if the shooter approached. Would he throw the garbage cans? Swing boards pulled from the coffee counter?
Outside, police didn’t know where the shooter was, according to radio traffic, and they worried about an ambush if they pushed into the store. They asked for a drone to launch inside the store to find him.
Meanwhile, those trapped inside stayed quiet. Aside from the occasional gunshots and a helicopter circling overhead, the building was eerily quiet.
“And you could just hear store music and automated messages,” Smith said. “There was no screaming or crying. It was just dead as night.”
Occasionally, his coworker’s cell phone would ring on the coffee counter. They let it go so as not to tip off the shooter that people were still in the store.
Boulder police Chief Maris Herold and Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty held four news conferences in the week following the shooting but declined to provide details about how the law enforcement response unfolded. In all, 26 agencies are involved in the investigation, Herold said. The district attorney said the police who rushed inside saved lives.
About 3 p.m., roughly 30 minutes after the first 911 calls, police officers began using a sound system to repeatedly order the suspect to surrender.
“This is the Boulder Police Department. The entire building is surrounded, I need you to surrender, now,” an officer ordered.
Maggie Montoya, 25, a pharmacy technician who hid with a pharmacist in a small room used to administer the COVID-19 vaccine near a front corner of the store, told Colorado Public Radio that she heard two calls for the suspect to surrender.
Both times, Montoya said, she heard the response of the gunman, who was standing near the pharmacy: “He said, ‘I surrender, I’m naked.’”
But it was not clear if police heard his first response, and at 3:22 p.m. SWAT teams went back into the grocery store. By this time, police were on the roof, armored trucks surrounded the building, drones circled inside and outside the store, and ambulances lined a street near the store to transport any wounded.
Again, the shooter told police he was naked and would surrender, Montoya told CPR.
Dressed only in shorts and bleeding heavily from a gunshot wound to his right thigh, Alissa walked backward to the SWAT team, according to a Boulder police arrest affidavit.
He was handcuffed and taken outside about 3:28 p.m.
He asked for his mother, police said.
After the gunman was taken into custody, police teams cautiously searched the building and evacuated those who had been hiding.
When they reached Montoya and her coworker, the officers urged them to keep their eyes focused on their own feet as they walked out, Montoya told CPR, but she still caught a glimpse of a beloved fallen coworker near the front.
From her cabinet hiding spot, Lopez saw a laser beam above her on the deli’s freezers. Figuring it was the SWAT team, she tried calling to them, but no sound came out.
“I was shaking and my heart was pounding and I was just so scared,” she said. Her coworker, the one hiding with her, saw her face and called out for help instead. As they were escorted out, Lopez said, she hung onto him for support because her legs had cramped up.
“I couldn’t believe that we were alive,” she said. “In that moment, just realizing that (the gunman) had obviously turned and gone the other direction — it was just such a relief. And then I just started thinking of coworkers and the possibility…” She paused. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
Shortly before 4 p.m., about an hour and a half after the attack began, a SWAT team reached the upstairs storage room where Plentywolf, Romero-Chavez and Dill were hiding.
Police, covered head-to-toe in body armor and holding rifles, ordered the five in the room to put their hands up and exit one by one. Officers led the group downstairs, through a hallway and out a west side exit. Amos Plentywolf and Romero-Chavez said they passed two bodies on the way out.
Once outside, a wave of nausea washed over Romero-Chavez.
“I felt a tight knot and I just threw up,” she said.
A police officer comforted her while other officers checked their IDs and wrote down their names and phone numbers.
They boarded a bus and were sitting toward the back when they recognized Denny Stong’s mother, who also worked at the King Soopers. Amos Plentywolf and Denny Stong became close friends in sixth grade when Stong invited Plentywolf, a new student, into his circle.
“We could hear fear in her voice,” Romero-Chavez said. “She was saying, ‘I need to know if my son is OK. Where is my son?’ ”
Stong, 20, died in the attack, along with Olds, Stanisic and Officer Talley. The other victims were Tralona Bartkowiak, 49; Teri Leiker, 51; Suzanne Fountain, 59; Kevin Mahoney, 61; Lynn Murray, 62; and Jody Waters, 65.
In the days since the attack, mourners have set flowers against the temporary chain link fence that now surrounds King Soopers and its lot. The makeshift memorial swelled as people left teddy bears, balloons, artwork and signs.
Community members have gathered for vigils and remembrances. They’ve lit candles and sung and embraced.
Prosecutors charged the shooter with 10 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder, for firing at Officer Steidell. Dougherty said Friday that he expected to charge the suspect with additional accounts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting at other responding police officers. He appeared in court for the first time Thursday, where Alissa’s defense attorneys said they needed time to “assess the nature and depth of (his) mental illness.”
No motive has emerged.
As the world moves on, some of those who were witnesses to the terror are finding the path forward difficult. Naughton’s mind races when he tries to sleep, and he’s thinking about moving out of his apartment across from the store.
“I don’t know If I’m going to be able to look at this parking lot every day,” he said.
Lopez, the cheese counter manager, was still angry mid-week. She grew up in a rural area, she said, and she isn’t anti-gun.
“You don’t know it until you experience it, until you’re there,” she said of witnessing the visceral power of a semi-automatic gun. “There’s just no point. They’re just killing machines.”
Semele Plentywolf is desperately trying to help her son and daughter-in-law return to normal. On Tuesday, the family celebrated Amos Plentywolf’s 21st birthday at Dave & Buster’s. They avoided the shooting games.
They’re thankful to Dill and the sushi chefs who led them to the upstairs storage room to hide. And they can’t stop thinking about Denny Stong, who years ago had been so kind to a classmate who needed a friend.
“He wasn’t able to celebrate his 21st birthday. Or hug his mom,” Amos Plentywolf said. “Or ever say ‘I love you’ one last time.’ “
Right after escaping the attack, Louis Saxton, the CU music student, decided he needed to be with family, so he drove straight to his aunt’s house in Louisville. There, he watched news coverage of the events unfolding for hours, only returning home late Monday.
His seconds-long involvement in the eventual mass shooting shook him. On Tuesday, he returned to the area near the store and brought his cello, performing solemn pieces by composer Johann Sebastian Bach. He did so again Wednesday and Thursday, and he planned to continue for 10 days after the attack, in honor of the 10 victims.
His luck isn’t lost on him.
“You can’t stop going through all these hypotheticals,” Saxton said, “like, what if I had taken a longer time picking out what I was getting? Or what if I had had a longer (shopping) list? You can’t stop going through all of these awful hypotheticals.”