“He just came in and started shooting without saying a word.”
That’s what two shell-shocked survivors of the King Soopers supermarket mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, told reporters on 22 March 2021 in the immediate aftermath of America’s latest outburst of deadly gun violence, which had just left another 10 people dead.
The pair were as stunned by the eerie calm with which the alleged shooter, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa – then just 21 – carried out the massacre as they were by the scale of the atrocity or their own good fortune in having escaped unharmed.
And they were not alone in noticing the killer’s chillingly methodical approach as he roamed the aisles, clad all in black and bearing a Ruger AR-556 pistol, equipped to function like a rifle with a longer-than-usual barrel, and a 9mm semi-automatic handgun.
Another eyewitness told the media the gunman had “let off a couple of shots, then was silent, and then he let off a couple more. He wasn’t spraying.”
The accused himself sustained a gunshot wound to the upper right thigh when he was apprehended by police officers and had to be treated in hospital before being booked and taken to the county jail.
He was swiftly charged with first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, which would subsequently be added to considerably as further felony charges were piled on over the next two months, leaving Alissa facing life in prison without hope of parole, the state having abolished the death penalty just one year earlier.
However, he would subsequently be moved from prison to a state mental hospital after a prosecution expert found he was “approaching catatonia” behind bars, with four psychologists diagnosing him with schizophrenia.
He was duly ruled “mentally incompetent” to stand trial on 3 December 2021 and again on 15 April 2022, leading many in the community to fear he might never be held accountable for his crimes in a court of law.
But on 23 August, after months of treatment and evaluations, Alissa, now 23, was found to have been “restored to competency” thanks to the efforts of his carers, meaning he can now appear before a judge.
Alissa had been born in Raqqa, Syria, in 1999 but became a naturalised American citizen when his family moved to the United States in 2002, eventually settling in Arvada, Colorado, not far from Boulder, in 2014.
However, Alissa’s high school years appear to have been unhappy ones, with his older brother Ali Aliwi Alissa subsequently saying he had been bullied by classmates and describing him as “very anti-social” and paranoid.
“When he was having lunch with my sister in a restaurant, he said, ‘People are in the parking lot, they are looking for me,’” Ali recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast. “She went out, and there was no one. We didn’t know what was going on in his head.”
He added that his sibling’s actions were “not at all a political statement, it’s mental illness. The guy used to get bullied a lot in high school, he was like an outgoing kid but after he went to high school and got bullied a lot, he started becoming anti-social.”
None of which prepared anyone for what unfolded at the Boulder discount supermarket at 2.30pm on that chilly Monday afternoon in the pandemic spring of March 2021 – the state’s worst massacre since Columbine in 1999 and Aurora in 2012 – as shoppers gathered to buy groceries or receive Covid vaccine shots at its pharmacy.
The gunman appeared in the car park of the store on 3600 Table Mesa Drive and quickly opened fire on anyone in his path, with the store employees who called 911 telling dispatchers, according to an affidavit, that they had “observed the suspect shoot an elderly man in the parking lot. The suspect then walked up to the elderly man, stood over him and shot him multiple additional times.”
The killer then entered the store and began his rampage in earnest, sending the approximately 115 people inside fleeing for the emergency exits in blind panic, some sheltering behind garbage cans in a Starbucks kiosk, in cabinets underneath deli counters or in stock rooms, desperate to remain unseen.
Manager Darcey Lopez would later tell The Loveland Reporter-Herald she believed her own death was inevitable as she listened to the gunfire: “I was ready to go. It was like ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. Ba-ba-ba-ba. It stopped, and we thought he was done. And then he started shooting again.”
The Boulder Police Department had meanwhile assembled a massive response outside the store, featuring armoured vehicles, ambulances, helicopters and drones overhead and a SWAT team ready to go and had urged the killer to surrender via sound system.
He finally did so, emerging with his hands up, stripped down to his shorts, and was handcuffed and led outside at 3.28pm, exactly 58 minutes after the attack had commenced, asking to see his mother.
The shooter’s motives have never been established but his victims were ultimately found to be: Denny Stong, 20; Neven Stanisic, 23; Rikki Olds, 25; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49; Teri Leiker, 51; Eric Talley, 51; Suzanne Fountain, 59; Kevin Mahoney, 61; Lynn Murray, 62; and Jody Waters, 65.
Stong, Olds and Leiker were Kings Soopers employees, Stanisic a repairman on the job while Talley was a police officer who had run towards the gunfire in a bid to intervene, becoming the first cop to be killed in the line of duty in Colorado since 1994.
The rest were customers.
All had simply been trying to go about their days.