In July of 2018, MaryLinda Moss and her daughter were in Silver Lake, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, to do some shopping for the upcoming school year. MaryLinda's daughter was about to start high school, so this year felt a little more special.
After visiting a few shops, MaryLinda, who has Type 1 diabetes, noticed her blood sugar was low, so she decided to stop at a local Trader Joe's grocery store to pick up a snack. Her daughter stayed in the car as she ran the quick errand.
"I went and grabbed a couple things, and then I was at the checkout counter, had taken my credit card out and heard these this crazy screech of tires and slam of metal against metal," MaryLinda said. "It was clear that it was a serious accident that happened."
And then she heard sirens.
"The thought that occurred to me was, 'How did they know already? That was too quick for them to know about an accident.' And then the next thing I heard was shots, gunshots," she said.
MaryLinda quickly threw herself on the ground, calling her daughter and instructing her to hide in the car as people screamed and ran around her in a panic.
"There was a woman lying next to me who looked terrified," she said. "I took her hand. There was a guy lying in front of me who was on the phone with his mother. And I'm looking at the guy who's in the aisle, and all of a sudden his back starts getting saturated with blood. And that's when I looked up, and I saw the assailant."
MaryLinda says this part of the story gets a little hazy, but the next thing she remembers is standing up and looking for something she could use to wrap the assailant's wound. She decided to use her own overshirt. As she approached him, MaryLinda saw the man was holding a gun in his hand, and it was pointing toward her.
"I said to him, 'That's making me uncomfortable. Can you point it away?' And he, I think, said 'sorry' and pointed it away," she said. "After I wrapped the wound, I sat down, and I put my back up against the counter, and my intention was, 'I'm done.' He can now figure out what he needs to do."
MaryLinda said the man was weak and shaky as he sat down on a case of water bottles right across from her. That’s when he addressed her directly.
"He looked at me and he said, 'Come over and massage my hand.' And I understood it was because of the wound and the pain that he was in," she said. "So I reluctantly went over, but once I was there, it was like I was physically attached to him. And that's kind of what set up the rest of the day."
"I have such a clear memory of that moment, of being aware that I was more present than I probably ever had been in my life, that I felt like my feet were going to the center of the Earth."MaryLinda Moss
MaryLinda said she was absolutely terrified during the entire ordeal, but tried to focus on the idea that she had a job to do.
"Having an active purpose allowed me to be a little bit more grounded," she said. "And I have such a clear memory of that moment, of being aware that I was more present than I probably ever had been in my life, that I felt like my feet were going to the center of the Earth."
MaryLinda's job was to try and somehow keep the assailant calm — the man who had stormed into the grocery store, exchanged shots with police and taken the shoppers hostage.
No one knew what had happened earlier that day: police say that the man had shot at his grandmother seven times, had taken her car to escape the police, and had grabbed his girlfriend and taken her with him. That there had been a gunfight with police, and that the crash outside the store caused the man's girlfriend to end up in the hospital.
MaryLinda remembers hearing the man make a phone call to ask if his grandmother was alright. But instead of relieving the assailant, the call escalated the already tense situation.
"There was obviously a lot going on over where the phone call was from, and it was amping him up. And so I asked him if I could take the phone, and he gave me the phone," she said. "I thought the more grounded he is, the calmer he is, the better off we're going to be. So at one point, I put my hand on his back, in between his shoulders, and just rested it there. And after he called his grandmother, I put my hand on his heart, and I said to him, 'I know you have a good heart, and I know you don't want to hurt anybody.'"
But MaryLinda found out that there were already injuries in the store, including a young woman named Mely Corado, a Trader Joe’s manager, who had been shot in the gunfight. MaryLinda asked the man if some of the hostages could bring her to the front of the store, so she could get the help she needed. He reluctantly agreed.
Soon after, negotiations between the police and the assailant began and MaryLinda began working as an impromptu liaison between the man and law enforcement.
"I would kind of step in when when [the assailant] was starting to yell at the police," she said. "I would say, 'Let's hold on a minute. Let's slow down. Hold on a minute. We're going gonna call you back,' just because I felt like I was able to see if I could keep things calmer."
MaryLinda remembers some of the most tense moments during the negotiations was when they noticed several sharp-shooters aiming straight toward them.
"I stood up to yell at him to get off the roof, because everything got scary once he saw that there was somebody aiming a gun in," she said. "When I stood up, I had the thought that I am now standing in front of him. And the next thought in my head was, 'I don't want them shooting in here. I know he's not trying to hurt anybody.'"
Throughout the nearly four hours of nerve-wracking negotiations, the assailant agreed to release a few hostages at a time. By the end of the crisis, only MaryLinda and three other hostages remained.
"During that time, he shared with me, 'I wish I had known you before. I just needed somebody to talk to. I told my family I was gonna lose it. And I just needed somebody to talk to,'" she said. "And in that moment, he was able to feel heard. He told me his name. He wanted me to write down his full name and his birthdate, so I could find him afterwards, because I said, 'I will reach out to you. I will. I'm not just saying that.'”
MaryLinda said the man felt very resigned by the end of the standoff.
"He said to me, 'I shot at a cop. I know I'm in for life. There's no hope for me.' And I said, 'There's always hope,'" she said. "It was important that he understand that this wasn't necessarily the end for him. And it was also really important that he not give up. If he had given up, we were much more in danger."
In the end, it was MaryLinda who put the handcuffs on the assailant. She took the gun, placed it in a Trader Joe's bag and told police they were ready. MaryLinda, the three hostages and the assailant walked out of the store and were immediately separated by SWAT officers. As she stood in the afternoon sun, MaryLinda said was overcome with emotion. She felt exhaustion and relief but also deep sadness, especially when she learned that the young woman she found had died.
"The next morning, I woke up and sat bolt upright in bed and I thought, 'Oh my God, if I had just asked if there was anybody hurt, maybe we could have gotten to Mely [Corado] earlier,'" she said. "It's that sense of … what we're able to do and what we were not able to do."
MaryLinda hasn’t spoken to the assailant due to court proceedings, but she’s standing by her promise: She wants him to know that she will be there if he needs a listening ear. She thinks meeting in person could go a long way in the healing process.
It’s been nearly two years since the hostage situation. Since then, MaryLinda started a support group for herself and all the other hostages to heal together.
MaryLinda’s goal that awful day was to keep everybody, including herself, alive. But she said, the only way she knew to accomplish that was through genuine kindness and compassion.
"The only way we can find a way through is to be open to one another and to what might be possible when we are truly present with one another," she said. "That seeing another human being for who they truly are — with the good, the bad and the ugly — is where that kindness comes from, I think."