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Authorities seek motive in Colorado shooting

Star Samkus, who works at the King Soopers grocery store and knew three of the victims of a mass shooting at the store a day earlier, cries while kneeling in front of crosses placed in honor of the victims in Boulder, Colo.
Star Samkus, who works at the King Soopers grocery store and knew three of the victims of a mass shooting at the store a day earlier, cries while kneeling in front of crosses placed in honor of the victims in Boulder, Colo.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Law enforcement officials and former associates of a 21-year-old man accused of killing 10 people at a Colorado supermarket have described the suspect as prone to sudden rage — and disclosed that he was suspended from high school several years ago for a sudden attack on a classmate that left the student bloodied.

Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, from the Denver suburb of Arvada, was booked into jail Tuesday on murder charges a day after the attack at a King Soopers grocery in Boulder and is scheduled to make his first court appearance Thursday.

He will be advised at the hearing of the charges he faces and his rights as a defendant. He would not be asked to enter a plea until later in the judicial process.

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Alissa bought a Ruger AR-556 pistol — which is technically a pistol though it resembles an AR-15 rifle with a slightly shorter stock — on March 16, six days before the attack, according to an arrest affidavit. Investigators have not established a motive, said Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty.

Authorities have not disclosed where the gun was purchased. An AR-15-style gun was recovered inside the supermarket and believed to have been used in the shooting, said a law enforcement official briefed on the shooting who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

A green tactical vest and a hand gun were also recovered inside the grocery store after the suspect removed most of his clothing shortly before he was taken into custody.

Among the dead was Boulder police Officer Eric Talley, 51, who was the first to arrive after responding to a call about shots fired and someone carrying a gun, said police Chief Maris Herold.

People gathered for a candlelight vigil on Tuesday to honor the ten victims of a mass shooting that occurred a day earlier at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo.
People gathered for a candlelight vigil on Tuesday to honor the ten victims of a mass shooting that occurred a day earlier at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo.JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images

The law enforcement official who was briefed on the shooting said the suspect’s family told investigators that Alissa had delusions and that they believed he was suffering some type of mental illness. The relatives described times when Alissa told them people were following or chasing him, which they said may have contributed to the violence, the official said.

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After the shooting, detectives went to Alissa’s home and found his sister-in-law, who told them that he had been playing with a weapon she thought looked like a “machine gun” about two days earlier, according to an arrest affidavit.

No one answered the door Tuesday at the Arvada home believed to be owned by the suspect’s father. The two-story house with a three-car garage sits in a relatively new middle- and upper-class neighborhood.

When he was a high school senior in 2018, Alissa was found guilty of assaulting a fellow student in class after knocking him to the floor, climbing on top of him and punching him in the head several times, according to a police affidavit.

Alissa “got up in classroom, walked over to the victim & ‘cold cocked’ him in the head,” the affidavit said.

Alissa complained that the student had made fun of him and called him “racial names” weeks earlier, the affidavit said.

An Arvada police report said the victim was bloodied and vomiting after the assault. Alissa was suspended from school and sentenced to probation and community service.

One of his former high school wrestling teammates, Angel Hernandez, said Alissa became enraged after losing a match during practice, letting out a stream of invectives and yelling that he would kill everyone. Alissa’s coach kicked him off the team because of the outburst, Hernandez said.

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Flowers hang from the perimeter fence outside a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo.
Flowers hang from the perimeter fence outside a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo.JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images

“He was one of those guys with a short fuse,” Hernandez said. “Once he gets mad, it’s like something takes over and it’s not him. There is no stopping him at that point.”

Hernandez said Alissa also acted strangely at times, turning around suddenly or glancing over his shoulder.

“He would say, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that?’” Hernandez recalled. “We wouldn’t see anything. We always thought he was messing with us.”

Arvada police investigated but dropped a separate criminal mischief complaint involving Alissa in 2018, said Detective David Snelling. Alissa also was cited for speeding in February.

After dark Tuesday, about 100 people mourned at a makeshift memorial set up for those killed in the supermarket nearby — adorning it with wreaths, candles, banners reading “#Boulderstrong” and 10 crosses with blue hearts and the victims’ names.

Four girls huddled in the cold, one crying as she reminisced about how they had protested the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Others recalled the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and the 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre.

Homer Talley, 74, described his son Eric as a devoted father who “knew the Lord.” He had seven children, ages 7 to 20.

The other dead were identified as Denny Stong, 20; Neven Stanisic, 23; Rikki Olds, 25; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49; Suzanne Fountain, 59; Teri Leiker, 51; Kevin Mahoney, 61; Lynn Murray, 62; and Jodi Waters, 65.

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Leiker, Olds and Stong worked at the supermarket, former co-worker Jordan Sailas said.

Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents more than 30 store employees, said workers did their best to get customers to safety.

“They grabbed everybody they could and they brought them to the backroom or to other areas of the store to hide or got them out through the back dock,” Cordova said. “And these poor grocery workers have just been through hell in general working through COVID this entire last year of the pandemic.”

Monday’s attack was the seventh mass killing this year in the U.S., following the March 16 shooting that left eight people dead at three Atlanta-area massage businesses, according to a database compiled by the AP, USA Today and Northeastern University.

It follows a lull in mass killings during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which had the smallest number of such attacks in eight years, according to the database, which tracks mass killings defined as four or more dead, not including the shooter.

In Washington, President Joe Biden called on Congress to tighten the nation’s gun laws. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed to bring forward two House-passed bills to require expanded background checks for gun buyers. Biden supports the measures, but they face a tougher route to passage in a closely divided Senate with a slim Democratic majority.

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Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington, Jim Anderson in Denver and AP staff members from around the U.S. contributed to this report. Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.