It was a sunny Monday and Boulder was melting off after digging out from a week of snowstorms. Police radio traffic had been mostly quiet through the morning and into early afternoon, aside from the intermittent scratch of check-ins and routine responses, standard fare for this outdoorsy college city of about 100,000 in the Rocky Mountain foothills.
That changed just before 2:30 p.m., when the first of what would be an explosion of frantic 911 calls began pouring in. Eyewitnesses reported that a man was shooting at shoppers and store personnel, inside and in the parking lot of a busy south Boulder grocery store.
Moments later, as a killer stalked the aisles and people scrambled across blood-slickened floors looking for escape or a place to hide, the order went out to all units:
“Hold all radio traffic, everybody. Just go.”
Thus it began, another deadly rampage and sorrowful chapter in Colorado's history of mass shootings.
By the time it ended — with a suspect in custody, less than an hour after it had begun — 10 people were dead, including 51-year-old Boulder police officer Eric Talley, who had been among the first officers on scene.
Hundreds of shoppers and workers had been on the property when Monday’s shooting spree began.
Most of the shooting took place in the first 15 minutes after the suspect, identified by police as Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, entered the front of the store, said 20-year-old Logan Smith, a barista at the Starbucks inside King Soopers.
RELATED: Boulder shooting | Full coverage
It was an hour of unbridled terror, when the shooter — who was jerky and constantly swiveling his head — came within 13 feet of where Smith and a coworker were hiding.
Smith, who is saving up to buy a car and needed the extra hours, had arrived for his shift two hours early that day, at 10 a.m., to find the coffee shop’s espresso machine down and a repairman working on it. Smith struck up a conversation with the repairman, "a great man," Smith would say later.
The repairman was 23-year-old Neven Stanisic, among the first murdered Monday, at his company van in the parking lot. The vehicle was one of two that had shattered windows, where victims had been gunned down.
That morning, Smith also talked with his coworker Denny Stong about a Civil War reenactment Stong was to participate in on Sunday.
It was a mock battle the 20-year-old Stong would not live to see.
"I did the dumb thing of running out and checking if there was actually gunfire," Smith said. "There was gunfire. I saw the gunman shoot a customer in the back, who was running into the store for safety."
Stong and Smith looked at each other and told each other to run. Smith called 911 and Stong took off running from the coffee kiosk, toward the gunman.
Smith would not see him again.
• • •
Moments after the first emergency dispatch went out, a female Boulder police officer radioed in to say she was in the area.
“Give me the (suspect's) description again.”
“White male, wearing a black vest. He has a beard and dark hair.”
“Alright … looking.”
Less than a minute later: “Party down in front of the store. Does not match the shooter’s description ….”
Then: “Possibly two parties down.”
By that time, multiple 911 calls were coming from inside the store, from people who had barricaded themselves in offices and back rooms.
The unidentified female officer reported that she and fellow officers were making a move.
“Talley … and myself are going in.”
Within minutes of the first shots being fired, Craig McSavaney picked up a call from his daughter.
All he heard were hysterical screams — no words, just his daughter's voice wailing in terror.
After 15 or 30 seconds, he finally understood her: "I can't get through. There's people with guns. There's people with guns everywhere. They're all running towards King Soopers. I don't know what to do. There's gunshots. There's gunshots."
McSavaney's daughter had just pulled into the parking lot when the fusillade erupted, leaving her trapped and unable to throw her car in reverse. She hid there, listening to the gunfire until an officer in tactical gear noticed her and helped her out of her car and across the street to safety.
Logan Smith saw store manager Rikki Olds fall as the gunman opened fire. Smith said he pushed a 69-year-old coworker into a corner of the Starbucks kiosk and covered her with trash can lids, and placed a lid over his own chest.
“My heart was covered,” he would recall.
“I’ve got a party down just inside the doors … shooter IS inside. He just shot at us twice.”
“Where are my officers that are inside?”
“Officer down inside the building.”
A request for mutual aid was issued, drawing every available emergency unit to a staging area set up to treat expected victims.
“We’re sending them all.”
Nine American Medical Response ambulances from the Boulder office were stationed in the King Soopers parking lot for seven hours, said Chris Williams, regional director for Colorado and Wyoming.
Another eight ambulances were on standby in Denver.
Hospitals along Colorado’s Front Range were primed to receive the wounded, Williams said.
“With the scale and size of an event like that — with the potential for mass casualties — they’re ready to go,” he said.
Ultimately, tragically, they would not be needed. The patients never came.
The 10 victims died on the scene. Only the suspect was injured, presumably by police, and transported by ambulance to a hospital.
Workers didn’t know until the end, though, that no patients would need medical assistance, Williams said.
“Those events are so fast-moving, and you have to wait until the entirety to grasp what happened,” he said. “We train with police and fire and hospitals for stuff like this, but it’s a different scenario when you’re in it.”
• • •
“The local shots being fired at us …"
“I just … another civilian report of a possible three gunmen. I don’t have locations yet.
"I got it. We’re taking multiple rounds.”
“We have rounds, both directions. So far, potentially one gunman armed with a long gun, potentially near the back of the store if we can get some officers to set up at the rear.”
And, around 2:45, as officers formulated a plan to breach the store with an armored vehicle and SWAT teams.
“We need shields. Get them up here. We’ve got to do an officer rescue.”
• • •
Alan Katzker, 47, was in the store's bakery section.
"When you hear an AR-15 go off in a grocery store, it's the loudest sound you could imagine," he said.
Katzker fled among a flood of people rushing for the rear exit. A semi truck blocked the back walkway, forcing him and others to scramble underneath it and run to safety.
Katzker circled around to the front of the store and spent the next hour watching the rampage unfold from an apartment complex across the street.
An armored tactical vehicle used a bludgeoning device to break open the front windows, he said, and an officer yelled over a loudspeaker, "Give yourself up. The building is surrounded. Give yourself up."
"It was something out of a Hollywood movie."
By 3 p.m., officers had made it inside the store and were cautiously combing the aisles searching for the shooter, and a drone was on its way.
“I see no movement, looks like from lanes 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10...partway down 11. We’re secure the rest of the way.”
Teams on the scene announced that they were going to try to talk to the suspect using a Long Range Acoustic Device.
Reports that the suspect was wearing body armor had led to a new directive:
"All units, due to body armor head shots only."
At first, Matthew Copeland, who works in the grocery store’s dairy section, thought someone was dropping boxes outside the front of the store.
He looked over at children playing on the mechanical horse nearby, unperturbed by the strange sound. They didn’t cry. They didn’t react.
Then he heard the first gunshot echo from inside the doorway.
“As soon as he entered the store, we all knew what it was,” Copeland said. “That first pop, we all turned. And then that pop pop.”
Copeland turned and raced to the back door. Normally, an iron bar secured by a padlock keeps the door secured shut during the day, and accessible only with a manger’s key.
But not Monday. To Copeland’s surprise, the door wasn’t locked.
“We would have been fish in a barrel back there,” Copeland said. “I would have had to tell people to hide or fight.”
Instead, he swung open the iron bar and a flood of people rushed past him to safety through the loading dock.
• • •
A dispatcher alerted teams about a call from the alleged suspect, warning police that officers outside the King Soopers "were going to picked off."
"I am assuming that is going to be our suspect. Re-air that for all units to understand he’s probably laying in wait. If we can have everybody...watch all their area of responsibility and stay behind cover.
Meanwhile, at the front of the store, Sarah Moonshadow ducked down with her son at the self-checkout near the west entrance, counting the seconds between each round fired from the other entrance to the east.
Each shot became louder as the gunman approached.
“All I could think of is ‘I got to get my son out of here. I got to make sure my son gets through this,’” Moonshadow said. “And by about the fourth shot, I told my son ‘This is it, we have to run. We have three seconds, we don’t have any other time.’
She felt the concussion of bullets flying past her and hitting items behind her. They ran through the west doors and into the open air of the parking lot.
There, in the middle of the store’s front driveway, a man’s body splayed on the pavement.
“I watched for a while – I was having a hard time even running because I just didn’t want to run away,” said Moonshadow, weeping. “And my son kept pulling me across the parking lot, and I just started screaming ‘Why is this happening? We have to help him. We have to do something.’
“And my son said, ‘There’s nothing we can do; we have to run.’”
They dodged across the street and hid behind a landscaping boulder at the nearby apartment complex as officers swarmed the store.
"I’m with a manager who’s got video feed from inside the store."
"Any intel on the location of the suspect?"
"He does not."
• • •
"Any thoughts of moving this to an encrypted channel. This guy is laughing at us. I bet he’s listening. Thoughts?
"Not now. We’re not going to have any operability."
Then, shortly after 3:30 p.m.: "We’re in contact with possible suspect."
Reports of more than one shooter had been incorrect, but police wouldn't know that, for sure, until later.
Even after police escorted a stripped-down and bloody Alissa into custody, the victims still trapped at King Soopers, and the police who had responded, didn't know whether more horrors lay in wait.
• • •
The grocery store has been a community hub, a place where people stop and chat with employees restocking produce and serving coffee at the indoor Starbucks, neighbors said.
It is where people seek refreshment after hiking nearby Bear Peak and Green Mountain. Children grow up expecting free balloons and cookies from the bakery department.
Later in their teens, they congregate during lunch and on free periods from nearby Fairview High School.
“A lot of students come down here from school to eat,” said one student who wandered over to the shooting site with three friends on Tuesday.
It’s a 15- to 20-minute walk from their school.
Fairview High students were sometimes told by teachers to go to the store in the event a gunman decided to attack their school, said India Gillingham, 21, who graduated from the school a few years ago.
She said that as a student, she feared someone attacking the school — much as gunmen did in Littleton, Parkland, Fla., and several other schools across the country over the last couple decades.
Seeing this once-safe grocery store turned into a battleground has validated those fears, she said.
Pedro Perin, 20, agreed.
“This is like our own backyard,” said Perin, another graduate of the nearby high school. “It’s really unexpected, just because it’s Boulder.”
“This is a peaceful, utopian kind of place,” another teen said. “If it’s going to happen here, it could happen anywhere.”
Several people noted the grace of timing that made this week spring break for Fairview. Otherwise, the store would have had its share of students inside, as normal.
• • •
The Table Mesa neighborhood is usually pretty quiet, said 46-year resident Mike Killion. It’s also affluent in parts, with a swath of wealthier homes, he said.
Earlier in the day the word “Strong” was added after the part of town known as South Boulder, or SoBo, Killion had stopped at the dry cleaners by the King Soopers where he shops regularly.
“I was right next door,” he said. “I knew two of the people who got shot in there.
“It’s real tragic. You never know anymore. You’d never think it would happen in Boulder.”
• • •
Standing at a chain link fence that quickly became covered in flowers in front of the King Soopers, Sebastian Aramendia, 20, wept for the loss of his friend, Denny Stong.
The two became friends in middle school, with the common bond of being "outcasts" who were bullied, he said.
Stong had been working at the grocery store for about two years, often at the self-checkout and on the night shift, Aramendia said. Stong had been saving for school, and bore dreams of someday being a pilot, Aramendia said.
"He was just a good guy," said Aramendia, of Lafayette. "It's hard — he was just very honest and genuine."
Exactly 24 hours after the first shots, he stood at the impromptu chain-link fence circling the bullet-riddled grocery store, gazing rows of flowers placed before it in a makeshift altar to the dead. With its flowers, stuffed animals, cards, signs, candles and other mementos, the fence quickly became dubbed "the wall."
“I’m dumbstruck, mind blown,” Aramendia said. “It just does not seem real.”
A friend joined him at the fence, and as the two embraced in a hug, Aramendia wept, his blue surgical mask soaked through in tears.
“I’m sorry,” Aramendia said.
Moments later, a man across the street sat down and started playing Bach’s cello suite No. 1 in G major, an eery but smooth sound floating above the whimpers of grief.
A man who identified himself as Clint said his girlfriend was among those killed.
He was visibly distraught as he walked along the makeshift memorial.
Clint said he was in the parking lot waiting for bagger Teri Leiker, 51, when the shooting erupted.
Clint watched the gunman bounce from one spot to another, with the popping sound of the gun ringing in his ears. Two victims were killed outside.
“It’s difficult,” Clint said, sobbing. “It’s pretty sad.”
Leiker had worked for Kroger, the parent company of King Soopers, for 31 years and was well-liked among staff and customers. She participated in the University of Colorado’s “Best Buddies” program, which matches student volunteers with developmentally and intellectually disabled adults.
She was remembered for loving her job and having a big smile.
Many people stopped to comfort Clint, who said it helped him to feel the support of those who came to grieve and honor the dead.
But it didn’t take away his pain, he said as he walked away.
Debra Baros, a customer of the Table Mesa grocery store for 30 years, had talked on occasion to Leiker, whom she described as “very helpful and sweet.”
“I saw her many times when she was going to get on the bus,” Baros said. “I thought about offering her a ride, and I never did. That’s a regret.
“I broke down when I heard she died. This is home. This is our community. It hurts.”
His eyes wet with tears, Thomas Windham stood before the store and marveled at the violence.
A Boulder resident of 52 years, Windham has visited the store countless times.
“It’s just crazy,” Windham said. “I’ve been shopping here since they built the store.”
To see the wreckage of a person barreling through with an assault rifle is “like somebody invading your house.”
“It happens everywhere … Boulder is not immune from the triumphs and the tragedies of the world we live in.”
• • •
Many people were astonished by the small twists of fate that kept them from being caught in the hail of gunfire on Monday, adopting a “there but for the grace of God” attitude.
“I could have been here at that time,” said Tony G., who lives in Denver but works in Boulder.
He usually takes a late lunch break and was supposed to get his meal at the King Soopers mid-afternoon on Monday, when the shooting happened.
“But I couldn’t make it,” he said. “It’s fortunate that I’m still here, but it’s an unfortunate scene.”
Tony G. knelt on the asphalt in front of 10 wooden crosses left at the fence, along with 10 vases of flowers with notes saying they were to the families of the victims from King Soopers employees.
Tears streamed down his face.
“I’m just praying for the 10 souls that were lost.”
On the memorial wall, one person plastered their receipt from having visited the store at 2:17 p.m., less than 15 minutes before the gunman opened fire.
“I was there that day,” a sign attached to the receipt said. “It could have been me. It could have been any of us.
“When will this nightmare end?"
Nikki Hanson, 42, said she also had planned on visiting the store around 2:30 p.m., but was delayed at home “by a stupid talk” with her husband.
As she finally approached the grocery store, police officers sped by, en route to the same destination.
“That someone was looking out for me? I honestly don’t have the words,” Hanson said.
As the aftermath of the shooting stretched, thousands of bouquets, from daffodils signifying the promise of spring, to roses, the traditional flower of love, lined the fence and spilled onto the sidewalk. A King Soopers ball cap and clothes from a uniform rested poignantly in a prominent spot. People wrote messages using markers on another set of crosses.
Police blocked one lane of traffic to accommodate what at times was a large crowd of mourners, many who stood, staring at the scattered cars in the parking lot and investigators in booties combing the area for evidence.
Clutching a bouquet of mixed flowers, 25-year-old Jared Gallegos of Lafayette stood for more than an hour on Tuesday gazing at the scene.
He prayed as he watched investigators collect evidence where shoppers’ cars remained trapped.
Rikki Olds, a manager at the store who lost her life in the shooting, was a friend from middle school and high school.
“I felt it was right to come out and show my condolences to her and everyone who lost their lives in this senseless act,” Gallegos said. “I wish there was more I could do, but all I can do is pray and show my love.”
Days later, Lauren Wilson said she can’t believe it really happened.
She and two friends who accompanied her to the memorial went to high school with the youngest victim, 20-year-old Denny Stong.
The trio said they grew up in the neighborhood and go to the King Soopers about once a week. Wilson said she was driving by when she saw police rush to the store and couldn’t tell what was what was going on.
“It’s devastating, absolutely heartbreaking,” Wilson said, crying and hugging her friends. “It’s just a horrible situation.”
A second improvised memorial for Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, the first on the scene and one of the 10 casualties, also has drawn mass attention, in a way countering the unthinkable act of the mass shooting.
Talley’s cruiser sits in front of police headquarters, where a steady stream of people have come to pay their respects and add to a mounting pile of flowers, crosses, balloons, even a teddy bear dressed in a police uniform.
Don Rohacek noticed one of the small American flags planted along the sidewalk was crooked.
He got up from the stool where he was guarding the site and straightened the flag.
When a police officer dies in the line of duty, everyone wants to help, said Rohacek, a volunteer with the Lone Tree Police Department who said he was assisting at the scene through the Aurora Police Department.
“Volunteers are coming from different police departments all over,” he said.
With police facing tough times during the pandemic and political strife, Rohacek was grateful on behalf of fellow law enforcement.
“It starts to restore your faith in humanity when you see the outpouring of support,” he said.
Elaine McCoy had worked at a police department in the past and has been through the difficulty of losing an officer before.
“I just had to bring a little something and say a little prayer,” she said, tying a balloon on Talley’s patrol vehicle.
Talley, 51, was one of the good guys, a family man and father of seven children, a man of faith, said those who knew him.
Many of the first responders at the scene had run calls with Talley.
Some nearby businesses were closed in the days afterward, and others added security guards.
Shop owners and employees in the businesses east of the grocery store described confusion and then a dreaded realization as shots rang out.
Tania Petrulis, owner of Sweet Ruckus, thought the first shots were plywood hitting concrete and dismissed it. But moments later, she recognized them as gunshots, locked her doors and turned off the lights.
Then came a bevy of police officers, some carrying tactical rifles and shields, and some yelling at her to stay inside.
Working at the nearby FedEx shipping store, Sean Gardner, 43, said he dismissed the first pops of gunfire as harmless noise from the back loading docks of King Soopers. But then the shots became louder and more fast-paced — he heard 10 to 20 in all — and a person ran into the store yelling that it was gunfire.
He huddled the back of the store with several otherss, some of whom came running in from outside to escape.
A couple days later, Gardner marveled at the timing of the attack.
He normally buys ginger beer from the grocery store every day, often from a kiosk near where the gunman entered. He thought twice about asking his boss for a break to get it, but customers kept him waiting inside and working.
Had it not been for that busy shift at work, he fears he would have been caught in the crossfire.
“Angels were watching over me, man,” Gardner said. “It hit close to home. It’s going to change my life. I feel like I’m going to be a better person because of it. I feel like I’m already going to be a more loving person because of it.
“Sometimes it takes tragedy to make you feel that way.”
Devin Jamroz, 35, was at a hardware store behind the King Soopers when police ran by, yelling for him to flee a gunman at the nearby grocery store.
The following night, he stood in the dark before the store, his eyes watering and fixed straight ahead at the battered building.
“It feels like a weird snapshot in time – masks and vigils and mass shootings,” Jamroz said. “A sad snapshot.”
“It feels weird that this doesn’t feel so weird — that it doesn’t feel so far from normal,” he said.
• • •
People flocked to several community vigils this past week.
Hundreds showed up at the Boulder County Courthouse Wednesday night, carrying flowers and lighted candles and dressed for cold, snowy weather.
Bathed in purple and blue light, participants hugged, wept and seemed bewildered.
The event evoked memories for new Boulder resident Laurie Viault, who moved to her “dream city” in November.
The daughter of a former colleague of hers was shot three years ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., an event that killed 17 people and injured 17 others.
“It’s very emotional for me,” she said.
“This is a safe community full of beautiful people that are full of peace and love of nature and love of life,” she said, before considering her words. “You know, I guess, I’ve got to learn that nowhere is safe, no matter what people want to say. As long as guns exist, we’re not safe anywhere.”
Along with serving as a collective place to grieve and console one another, the “wall” became a political sounding board.
Just beyond lay the crime scene and bullet-riddled store, which reminded Cori Delano, 19, of the Boston Marathon bombing eight years ago. Her brother was down the street when the first explosions sounded and escaped uninjured.
Adam Shi, 19, said his parents live in Atlanta, where six days before the Boulder shooting a string of shootings at three spas killed eight people, six of Asian descent.
He said he wants Congress to pass sweeping gun reform legislation that would mandate universal background checks and ban assault rifles like the one that investigators say the suspect used at King Soopers.
“I just want to see change,” Shi said. “I just don’t want this to happen again.”
Change starts, said Prerana Vishwanath, 16, with “accepting that our lives are more important than … gun rights.”
She and her friends have had close shaves with three mass shootings. Her friends were at the STEM School Highlands Ranch two years ago when a gunman attacked, and her family knew students at Columbine High School during the shooting there in 1999.
“I understand that you need your guns, but we need our lives,” Vishwanath said.
Moonshadow can’t fathom why others at the store wouldn’t have wanted a gun of their own on Monday.
An ardent 2nd Amendment supporter, Moonshadow said she wishes she had had her .380 handgun with her in the store.
“I feel like if I had it, I could have at least fired something — caused some confusion and maybe people could have gotten away, anything,” Moonshadow said.
Having fled for her life from the gunman, she now wishes she could have fought back.
“All that does is prevent people like myself from being able to properly protect ourselves from criminals who don’t care about those laws,” Moonshadow said. “Is murder not against the law in the first place? Do they care?”
As McSavaney picked up his daughter's car on Thursday, which along with other shoppers’ had been trapped in the parking lot since Monday, he shook his head at the senselessness of it all.
He thought back to this month’s attack in Atlanta and another instance on Wednesday of a man being found with several guns in an Atlanta grocery store.
"I'm sickened it happened here" McSavaney said. "I'm sickened it happened last week. I'm sickened it almost happened yesterday.
"We as a country, we have to decide this is not something we're prepared to continue live with."
Alan Katzker, who was in the bakery section when the shooting began, returned Thursday to pick up the vehicle that he had to leave behind.
His next stop: Finishing the grocery run that was cut short on Monday.
But as he left, he couldn't shake the feeling of three days prior.
It all seemed too practiced after so many shootings, and after so many people killed in Colorado over the last 22 years in similar attacks.
"Our society is now kind of trained," Katzker said. "We were exiting at full speed. We were exiting like we had been trained to do that."
Rod Franklin lives just five blocks from one of two memorials erected in honor of the 13 victims of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton.
He and his mom, Dollee Franklin, felt drawn to the King Soopers memorial and arrived with flowers in hand.
They had bought the bouquet at a King Soopers near their house, where Rod Franklin’s sister-in-law works.
The store was crowded, he said.
“It’s hard, but people are just moving on.”
For the family of coffee machine repairman Neven Stanisic, his death was bitterly, bewilderingly, ironic. They are Serbian refugees who’d fled Bosnia during the violence of the 1990s for a better life.
“I assume the gunman pulled over right next to him, got out of his car and shot Neven,” said the Rev. Radovan Petrovic, the family’s priest at Saint John the Baptist Serbian Orthodox Church in Lakewood. “He was the first victim, I believe.”
Stanisic’s trip to the King Soopers had been twice postponed.
“If he had been able to go the first time, this wouldn’t have happened to him,” Petrovic told The Gazette.
“There are just seconds in question between life and death,” the priest said. “It’s very difficult in this moment. This has caught us by surprise. We mourn the loss of life.”
Gazette reporters Seth Klamann, David Mullen and Breeanna Jent contributed to this report. Recordings from Broadcastify were used in the creation of this story.