BOULDER, Colo. — Dean Schiller was nearby shopping when he heard the shots. So Schiller, who regularly live-streams crime scenes on YouTube, hustled over to the entrance of the King Soopers supermarket.
Immediately, he came upon two bodies, sprawled on the pavement.
“Whoa, someone’s down right here,” he narrated. At the store entrance, he asked a man, “Did you see which way the shooter went?”
Then Schiller pivoted and addressed his audience: “Look, there’s people lying in the . . . street, guys.” The video showed a body slumped on the ramp into the store. Another body lay crumpled on the parking lot, prone.
Right inside the store’s front door, a victim lay on the floor, apparently having been blown backward by gunfire.
And then two more shots rang out.
It was 2:30 p.m. on a cold, gray Monday in Boulder, clumps of snow still on the ground. And at the King Soopers, part of a sprawling shopping center near a senior living center, two churches and a Montessori school, another man with a gun was killing people.
Ten of them died this time: shoppers and shop clerks, managers and mothers, regular folks getting their food, making a living. They died in one of the few places where Americans have gathered during the pandemic, in a supermarket that had set time aside every day to give people the vaccine that is supposed to open a path back to something like normalcy.
But now, nothing was normal. With another set of pop-pops, Schiller ran.
He warned unsuspecting shoppers in the parking lot to get away: “The active shooter’s still in there.” In the distance, the sound of the first sirens.
He ran the perimeter of the building. Incongruously, some shoppers wandered toward the store while officers scurried inside it.
Taking cover behind a car, Schiller captured police surrounding the store, weapons drawn. More shots rang out from inside the building. Police pulled back, then approached once more. More officers arrived and sealed off the parking lot.
The shooter was inside, along with who knew how many potential victims — people who had entered King Soopers looking for nothing more than nourishment and maybe a bargain. On Monday, there was a special on organic strawberries, two containers for $5, and Doritos were on sale for $1.88 a bag.
Three shots, then running
Ryan Borowski, 37, had driven about 20 minutes to the store from his home in north Boulder to treat himself to some ice cream on his day off. But as he entered the shop about 2:25 p.m., he decided no, he really wasn’t in the mood for Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. He headed for the chips aisle instead.
As he scanned the shelves for his favorite brand — Boulder Canyon, one bag of regular and one bag of salt and pepper — he heard a pop from the east end of the store, near the front. Then another. Then a third. That one convinced him: Someone was shooting.
The shots were coming from where Borowski, a licensed massage therapist, would have been shopping for Half Baked if he had stuck to his original plan.
“Someone came running toward me looking terrified and I turned to run with her,” he said. “We heard more shots, maybe eight total. We ran to the back of the store, through a door that took us through an employee area.”
The workers were startled to see customers running into their backstage work zone.
“We told them there was a shooter and they helped us find the exit,” Borowski said, “and we found our way out the loading bay and jumped down, scooted around a truck, and ran.”
There were perhaps a dozen of them by then, customers and employees, and they stayed close.
“Somebody had a hand on my back and I had a hand on someone’s back,” Borowski said. “We were a tightknit group.”
When he made it to a hill overlooking the store, he dialed 911. His phone said it was 2:32 p.m. He held it together long enough to talk to the dispatcher. But then he called his wife. That’s when he lost it.
“It took me a minute of stammering before I could tell her what happened,” he said. “Talking to a loved one made sharing the details a lot more visceral.”
A cacophony of panic
The 911 calls poured in. By 2:40 p.m., Boulder police were en route to an active shooter situation.
The calls were the usual cacophony of panic and presumption, helpful details and random strands of information.
The shooter was “a White male, middle-aged with dark hair, a beard, a black vest, and a short-sleeved shirt,” one caller said, according to a police affidavit. The shooter wore “an armored vest and was about 5-8 , with a chubby build and approximately 280 pounds,” another caller said.
People said they’d seen the shooter fire into a vehicle and at pedestrians. They said he was “in front of the ‘Piggly Wiggly,’ ” and that he was inside the King Soopers, in the “refrigerator section.”
The calls came from people outside and from people hiding inside the store.
And then callers said that the shooter had fired at police who had arrived and entered the store.
Employees watching from inside next to the windows told Boulder police detective Joanna Compton they saw the shooter fire at an elderly man in the parking lot, then walk up to the man, stand over him and blast several more bullets into him.
In every aisle of the store, at every cashier station, people registered that something was terribly wrong.
Kevin Kennedy, 42, a novelist and resident of Morrison, Colo., had been doing research at the University of Colorado library before heading to King Soopers for a snack. He headed toward the back of the store and soon heard the shooting start. A man ran toward him saying the shooter “had an AR” — an AR-15 firearm.
“We all ran to the back,” Kennedy said.
Outside, too, the sound of gunfire shattered the routines of the day.
Anna Haynes was eating a bagel at 2:30. Her roommate and fellow student at the University of Colorado was in photography class. The campus is about two miles from King Soopers, but the class was on Zoom, so they were, in this year of the coronavirus, at home.
The noise drew Haynes to the window of their first-floor apartment with a view directly onto the supermarket, where they are regulars.
Haynes saw the shooter on a ramp at the front entrance. He turned and fired repeatedly. She couldn’t see what he was blasting at, but she saw a body on the ground.
The shooter went inside. People started screaming. Some fled the building. Sirens wailed.
Haynes couldn’t move.
“I just stood there and tried to process whether I had seen what I had just seen,” she said. Finally, she told her roommate what was going on. The two of them stood there for more than six hours, never leaving the window even as they called family members and close friends to let them know they were okay.
Haynes, 21, a journalism and political science student who is editor in chief of the college newspaper, moved to Colorado from Australia in 2012. She settled in Aurora just weeks before a gunman killed 12 people at the Century 16 movie theater there.
She has felt haunted by the shootings ever since. Now she waited to learn what happened inside the store, what happened to the shoppers just like her, and to the cashiers she’d come to know in the checkout lines.
Police pour in
The shooter was silent, witnesses said. He shot in spurts, all around the store, while shoppers fled out any door they could find, or hid in closets, or in storerooms, or in bathrooms.
A married couple, Quinlyn and Neven Sloan, had divvied up their shopping and were in separate areas of the store — she in dairy, he in produce — when the gunfire began. They managed to connect and hurry out, but Neven decided to go back inside to see whether he could help others.
Sarah Moonshadow had just paid for her strawberries when she heard two shots.
She told her son, Nicolas Edwards, to drop and “we Spider-Man crawled on the floor out of there,” Edwards, 21, told the Denver Post.
They made it outside, hesitated near a fallen body, then kept running because, Edwards told his mother, “we can’t do anything.” They got to a large rock outside an apartment building and hid there as police arrived, swarming the parking lot.
The officers were pouring in from all over the Denver area and beyond. There were helicopters and drones, fire equipment, a fleet of ambulances.
Boulder resident Christine Chen, driving past the scene with her son and daughter, said on Twitter that she saw hundreds of officers: “We saw SWAT vehicles, with multiple armed men hanging off the sides of trucks. In Boulder.”
“Mommy, I’m scared,” her son, 7, said. He was afraid, his mother said, that “we wouldn’t find our way home.”
About 3 p.m., an armored police vehicle arrived and rammed through the store windows, creating a clear view into the market. Ten minutes later, police addressed the shooter over a loudspeaker atop the armored vehicle: “This is the Boulder Police Department. The entire building is surrounded. You need to surrender now!”
The officers waited eight minutes, then continued ramming the storefront. Almost 40 minutes into the incident, Schiller’s live stream was still picking up occasional pops, ringing out from inside the store.
A hook-and-ladder truck lifted a nine-man SWAT team onto the King Soopers roof.
Inside, Boulder officer Richard Steidell was combing the store for the shooter. He found his colleague, Officer Eric Talley, who “was down, and appeared to be deceased,” according to the police affidavit.
Talley, 51, had a steady career in information technology before one of his best friends was killed in a drunken driving incident. The tragedy and unfairness of the loss inspired Talley to enroll in the police academy and switch careers. It meant less pay, worse hours and mortal danger. He knew it was the right move.
Steidell alerted commanders about the fallen officer and returned to the search. And then there he was, the shooter, holding what looked like an assault rifle, firing to and fro, including at Steidell.
A SWAT team, moving behind a body shield, entered the store, found Talley and dragged him outside. He had been shot in the head, police said.
The man with the bloody leg
At 3:20, with 11,000 viewers on his live stream, Schiller showed a cluster of more than 20 officers approaching the store’s front door.
Moments later, Boulder officer Brad Frederking heard SWAT officers talking to a man, and then saw that man walking backward, surrendering to the SWAT team.
Fifty-seven minutes after Schiller arrived at the scene, his YouTube feed broadcast the image of Frederking and Sgt. Adrian Drelles calmly and quietly walking a handcuffed, nearly-naked man — potbellied, barefoot, showing no emotion — out of the store, past clumps of snow, past a firetruck.
His name was Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa and he had taken off all his clothes but for his shorts. His right leg was covered in blood, apparently his own. When Drelles asked whether there was another shooter inside, Alissa said nothing. He asked only if he could speak to his mother, the police report said.
Officers took Alissa to an ambulance, where paramedics found that he’d been shot in his upper right thigh, “through and through,” according to Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold.
The officers went with Alissa to the hospital. It was 3:28, about an hour since the shooting had begun, and police had their suspect.
Alissa gave officers his name and his date of birth. He was just shy of his 22nd birthday. Alissa had removed his “green tactical vest, a rifle (possible AR-15), a semiautomatic handgun, a pair of jeans and a dark colored, long-sleeved shirt. There was much blood around the items,” the police report said.
Over the next 20 minutes, clusters of officers gingerly approached the store, taking cover behind the armored vehicle, then heading inside, to the places where the bodies were. A fleet of ambulances waited in an adjoining lot.
They found 10 victims — seven in the store, two on the ground out front and one in a car in the lot. Next to that car, detectives found a black Mercedes C sedan registered to Alissa’s brother, Ali. A rifle case lay inside.
Later that evening, officers in the town of Arvada, 30 minutes south of Boulder, confronted a woman who police said had married Alissa’s brother a month ago. The woman told police that she had seen Alissa a couple of days earlier “playing with a gun she thought looked like a ‘machine gun.’ ”
Family members were upset with Alissa for playing with the gun in the house and took the weapon, the woman told police, but she thought the gun might be back in Alissa’s room now.
Police said Alissa bought a Ruger AR-556 pistol on March 16, six days before the shootings.
'Someone to cry with’
The end of the assault seemed to calm no one. A server at a cafe just around the corner from the supermarket had let in about 20 people fleeing from the shooter, even though she’d locked the doors when she’d heard about the attack.
When police finally said people could leave, the server jammed her car full of people and drove them home. Some of the surviving shoppers drove others, complete strangers, to their homes.
Police evacuated others who had hidden inside the store, taking them away from the scene in buses.
Shortly before 8 p.m., a silent stream of police squad cars and ambulances, their emergency lights flashing, escorted Talley’s body away from his final call.
Borowski, the man whose decision to buy potato chips rather than ice cream may have saved his life, waited outside King Soopers for several hours in the cold, hoping to retrieve his car from the lot. Eventually, he gave up and walked home. The 10-mile trip took two-and-a-half hours.
“I didn’t feel unsafe during the walk,” he said. “Something changed, but other things didn’t.”
Louis Saxton, 18, a freshman music student at the university who lived in the neighborhood, had stopped off at the market after class, as he did several times a week. He had been at the self-checkout when a man “told me to run,” he recalled. He heard a gunshot, felt a rush of adrenaline and entered “panic flight mode.”
He dropped his bag and ran toward his car.
Saxton called his family back in Bemidji, Minn., then drove to his aunt’s house nearby where he spent time trying to mentally escape the tragedy.
On Monday night, back at his own apartment across the street from the supermarket, he tried to focus on schoolwork and an upcoming French exam. He didn’t sleep a wink. All night and all the next day, his phone pinged with notifications from friends and family offering, he said, “someone to talk to, someone to cry with.”
The outpouring of love led him to return to King Soopers on Tuesday afternoon to play his cello for dozens of mourners who had gathered at a makeshift memorial in the parking lot.
“I wanted to go play because I’m so lucky, and there are too many people that were not,” Saxton said. “So I needed to do what I can.”
He chose a set of Bach suites that he thought expressed the melancholy of the moment. It was just past 2 p.m. when he began to play -- almost exactly 24 hours since he had entered King Soopers looking to pick up some frozen fruit and enough breakfast burritos to last a few days.
Jacobs reported from New York City; Sellers and Fisher reported from Washington.