The gunman shoved Mia Ramos into the restroom of a Blockbuster in McLean. If she did what he said, Ramos recalled the masked man telling her, he would be her “friend for the night.” Then he tied her hands behind her back, turned off the lights and locked her inside.
In the darkness on that night in November, Ramos’s mind began to race. It’s happening again, she thought. The gun. The robbery. The bathroom. She flashed back to a similar scene 15 years ago, when she was raped while working at a Foot Locker in Manhattan, just days before she was supposed to start her freshman year at New York University. She spent the next decade trying to put the attack behind her. Now, the memories rocked her again as she waited for the gunman to decide her fate.
“Broken bones heal,” she said later. But emotional traumas, “they last for a lifetime.”
Ramos’s experience is highly unusual. Violent assaults in retail stores are so rare that the industry groups and academics who study business crime don’t track them. When these attacks do occur, such as the one in the Lululemon yoga-wear store this month, the crimes often grab headlines.
But as Ramos knows, the improbable can happen, sometimes more than once.
The first time Ramos was attacked, she got angry. It happened on a summer night in 1996, the day she moved into her dorm room at NYU. She was 18 and excited about being able to walk to her part-time job as a sales clerk at Foot Locker. She was scheduled for the last shift that day with three other workers. Five minutes after closing time, three men still lingered in the store.
She didn’t pay them much attention — just a couple of dawdling customers — until one of the men pulled out a gun. Worried about being seen through the store windows, they demanded the employees’ uniform shirts, and one of them eyed her as she took hers off. While the other robbers herded the rest of the employees and three other people who were in the store into a back office, he pointed to Ramos and ushered her into a bathroom.
She cried throughout the attack, thoughts of her family and the future that had seemed so close just that morning flickering in and out of her head. She begged him to stop but did not fight back. Her instincts told her that the more she struggled, the less likely she was to stay alive.
Her attacker, Norman Thompson, eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree charges of rape, sodomy and robbery. Ramos was determined to confront him at his sentencing, where the judge gave him 91 / 2 to 19 years. “I may still be breathing,” she said in court, “but you stole away my life, because I’ll never be the person I once was.”
It took several years for Ramos to find that person again. There was a short-lived marriage, and a battle with depression that once sent her to the hospital. She relied on welfare, moved in with family and joined support groups. She spoke publicly about the rape and found that process to be therapeutic. After the second incident, she again decided to allow her name to be used publicly.
Longtime friend Ana Rhodes, who lives in Florida, said Ramos’s anger over the New York attack gave way to frustration. She watched her peers finish college and start careers while she struggled to stand on her own.
“The universe, life or whatever you want to call it is trying to beat her down and not let her get to the finish line,” Rhodes said.
The breakthrough came in 2002 when Ramos enrolled in community college in New York and started earning A’s. She earned two associate degrees in the next four years and served as an international vice president of the honors society Phi Theta Kappa. Ramos transferred to Columbia University — her second chance at New York, she called it — and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2008.
By the time Ramos moved to Montgomery County this past summer from Florida, where she has family, she had a plan: apply to law school in the area, perhaps one with a dual program in social work, to work with other women who have been abused. The attack had sucked her into a black hole of pain and depression for more than a decade. Now she was ready for the rest of her life.
Working as a store manager at the Blockbuster in McLean was supposed to be a stopgap, a job to pay the bills and save money. Then, on Nov. 7, she received phone calls in the wee hours of the morning alerting her to a security breach at the store.
The store’s front window had been smashed and glass covered the sidewalk, according to police. But more disconcerting was what Ramos said she saw in the video footage from the store’s security camera: a man wearing a Blockbuster shirt who seemed to have a key to the store and even looked for an alarm key pad to disable. As he punched in numbers, Ramos said, he placed a gun on the counter.
Instantly, Ramos was on guard. She asked her bosses to change the locks, but she said they refused, citing the cost. The McLean store has since closed, and a cellphone number for the district manager at the time has been disconnected. An e-mail from Blockbuster’s corporate headquarters said the company would have no comment.
She called the police officer assigned to the case, Todd Owens, and asked him to drop by the store that night when it closed at 10 p.m. She even brought in a bat that she keeps in her car for safety, just in case.
They came at closing, according to a police report, just like last time. Two men rushed into the store. Ramos said she was counting the money in the safe. One of them grabbed her, pointed a gun at her side and led her to the back of the store, she said. If an alarm went off he would kill her, she remembered him saying.
Ramos heard him speaking as he tied her up in the bathroom, she said, but her mind dove into the past. Gun. Robbery. Bathroom. Every detail of the attack on her 18-year-old self replayed in her mind as the gunman slipped out of the restroom. A few minutes later, Owens and other officers showed up and she heard their police radios crackle. “Fairfax police! Show yourself!” Ramos remembered an officer shouting. Ramos broke down and began crying. “I am here! I am here!” she called back.
There had been no sexual abuse, but Ramos felt violated.
Later that night, her roommate recalled, she spoke calmly about what happened while he started crying and hyperventilating. But it soon became clear to him that Ramos was just as shaken.
“Mia was put in this kind of position where life had slipped off its axis,” said the roommate, who asked not to be identified, because he was worried about their security. “There was nothing really that she could hold on to.”
For the next three months, Ramos holed herself in her apartment. She never returned to her job at Blockbuster. With no income, she has fallen behind on her student loans. Her university put a hold on her transcripts, which also means she can’t apply to law school. The debt collectors began calling, but Ramos ignored the phone. More time slipped away, with fear a constant companion.
“If it can happen twice, it can happen three times, four times,” Ramos said.
Xavion D. Butler, 20, of Dumfries has pleaded guilty to robbery in the Blockbuster case and is slated to be sentenced in late April. Another man, Chancellor Dowden, 19, of Woodbridge is scheduled to stand trail in June on charges of abduction and use of a firearm in a felony in connection with the case, according to Fairfax police. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Both men are free on bail, and for a while Ramos was afraid to leave her apartment by herself, in case they found her again. But slowly she has started gaining confidence. She started a new job as an aide at a law firm. She plans to file for workers’ compensation from Blockbuster. But the question remains: How could she be so unlucky?
Ramos has no answer and has given up searching for one. The attacks have become facts of her life, not philosophical treatises. Instead, she is trying to shift her perspective. She has survived traumas that have broken other people. Maybe there’s some luck in that.
Staff writer Tom Jackman and researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.