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A closed door, and a prayer: Woman hid as man fired shots in Colorado

by Teresa Moss | April 18, 2021 at 9:16 a.m.
Maggie Montoya reunites with her boyfriend after being escorted by police out of King Soopers in Boulder Monday, Mar. 22, 2021. Montoya was inside the grocery store when a gunman opened fire there, killing at least 10 people, including a Boulder Police officer. A man is in police custody after the attack. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Maggie Montoya is one of the fastest women in the nation, but when a gunman opened fire March 22 in the Boulder, Colo., grocery store where she worked she had nowhere to run.

She waited instead, and listened to the shots that ultimately killed three of her co-workers, a police officer and six others.

The Olympic trials qualifier knew that at any moment the gunman could barge into the tiny room where she hid under a desk.

She called 911 but hung up.

She called her parents in Arkansas for a final goodbye.

And she waited for a shot that could end her life.

Two weeks later, Montoya paced in the backyard of the Boulder home she shares with another professional runner and former college runner. The 25-year-old has been racing toward Olympic and medical field goals since she was rounding the track at Rogers High School, but on this day she was getting back to the simple things.

She talked about her garden and her golden doodle dog named Harper -- the parts of life that are rooting her in a time when she rebuilds her focus.

She doesn't know when she'll return to working or studying -- things she's been adamant to maintain as she's tediously pursued her running goals. She's uncertain if she'll continue training for the 5K Olympic trials.

One goal remains clear: the 10,000-meter Olympic trials, for which she has already qualified.

She's also focused in recent weeks on doing media interviews in hopes of bringing awareness to mass shootings and their impact.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, an organization that tracks mass shootings in the United States, the shooting at the King Soopers grocery store is one of 147 mass shootings so far in 2021. The organization defines a mass shooting as four or more shot or killed in an incident.

Police have identified the King Soopers gunman as 22-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa of Arvada, Colo. He is charged with 10 counts of murder in the first degree and is being held without bail pending assessment of his mental health.

For Montoya, her mind circles around the sound that filled the hour that Alissa spent inside the grocery store.

It's the constant ring of the pharmacy phones.

Something that was a previously acute annoyance became a horrific sound that day. Each ring felt like a beacon alerting the shooter to her location.

Six phones, all connected, rang as the gunshots started. They rang between the screams of people rushing for safety. They rang during the silence, and they rang over the store's music.

They rang after Montoya heard the gunman say he was surrendering on the other side of a thin door that concealed Montoya and a co-worker, and they rang as the SWAT team ran across the roof.

Montoya and her co-worker took what little control they had in the situation. Montoya texted with those on the outside while her co-worker held a chair, ready to attack should someone come through the door.

They silenced the pharmacy phones with each ring, unsure which -- the ringing or the silencing of the phones -- would alert the gunman more.

"I grappled between not making it out at all and to thinking that if we were quiet enough that we would be able to make it," Montoya said.

SAYING GOODBYES

It had snowed the day before the shooting, making for a "nice and chilly" Monday.

Montoya ran 8 miles with Harper and 3 more on her own that morning before work. The morning run is a routine she's kept since she first took up the sport in junior high.

Montoya's family moved to Rogers when she was 9 years old, transplants like so many others in the area. As she grew, so did the city and region. A mall and amphitheater now sit where she remembers fields. Once dry Benton County now flourishes with local breweries that remind her of the Boulder community she's called home since she moved there for training in 2018.

It was in eighth grade that her dad's tennis partner suggested Montoya try out running.

"I just remember the first run," Montoya said. "We did 2 miles, and it was very hard. I came out the next day, and we did 4 miles. It was way worse, but so much fun."

Montoya gained notoriety quickly, winning 17 state championships and numerous awards before the end of her high school career.

She signed with Baylor University in March 2013 and led her college team to its first conference title by placing second and earning All-Region honors at the NCAA South Central Regional.

In 2018, Montoya moved to Boulder, a college town of about 100,000 people in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, with hopes of moving forward with her running career. She took a job at the King Soopers pharmacy, which allowed her to work around her running schedule.

Montoya rushed through breakfast on the morning of the shooting because she'd started her run later than usual. She clocked in at 10:30 a.m., about four hours before the first gunshot.

The first King Soopers Power Hour had ended at 10 a.m. The hour is a push by the pharmacy to vaccinate as many people as possible for covid-19.

"I was happy I missed it," Montoya admitted, even though she heard the grumblings from co-workers as she clocked in.

She'd grown close to her co-workers in the pharmacy and grocery store as the crew worked long hours during the pandemic.

Just before 2:30 p.m., Montoya began checking in customers for their covid-19 vaccinations. Her manager and the manager's sister were among those waiting in the line.

Through analysis of police records, witness statements and video footage, the Denver Post estimates that the first shots were fired at 2:29 p.m. in the grocery store's parking lot.

"I didn't know they were gunshots," Montoya said. "I'm not really around guns."

It was the store manager, still in line, who first responded to the sound by yelling "active shooter."

"My mind didn't quite register what that entailed," Montoya said. "We just took off."

Three of her co-workers hid behind shelving in the pharmacy. Montoya and another co-worker ran into the counseling room.

That's where Montoya began saying her goodbyes.

"I figured a lot of people were calling 911, and I wanted to talk with my parents," she said. "I figured that would be the last time I talked to them."

Her mom, in Arkansas, picked up the phone. She knew something was wrong. Montoya's dad joined the call as well.

"I told them there was an active shooter in our store, that I was hiding" said Montoya, her voice breaking as she struggled to get out the words. "I told them that I loved them, and then they said they loved me back. I told them I needed to go and texted them instead once I hung up."

She texted her boyfriend and told him not to text back. She texted her co-worker's husband because the co-worker didn't have her phone in the room. And she texted her coach, Richard Hansen, who heads the Boulder running group Roots Running Project.

Every time she received a response, Montoya quietly held the phone up for the co-worker to read.

Hansen became more than just a coach during that hour. Watching live feeds, he became Montoya's main source of information about police mobilization happening outside the store.

Hansen was working at his chiropractor business, located near the grocery store, when he heard there was a shooting in the grocery store's parking lot.

"I know Mondays she is there almost all day," he said. "She does her run in the morning, and she is there."

He texted Montoya immediately.

"Do you know if they got him?" she responded.

Hansen was uncertain of what type of shooting was unfolding.

"She asked if I could call 911," he said. "I was asking if she was OK, and the way she was responding I could tell she was scared."

The two shared approximately 60 text messages over the next hour. It wasn't until the next day, when Hansen saw Montoya give a shaken interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, that he realized the seriousness.

"Any moment I was messaging with her, those messages could have gone silent and she could have been another victim," Hansen said.

NO SENSE OF SAFETY

Montoya didn't spend much time considering fleeing the store.

"We'd have to run across such an open part of the store," she said. "We felt even though there was a risk of being found that we were in the best place possible. In my head there was nowhere else to go."

There was no sense of safety.

The Denver Post analysis shows that three officers entered the store at 2:37 p.m. Soon after, Denver police officer Eric Talley, 51, was fatally shot in the head.

"I don't know the order of events," Montoya said. "Some of the shots seemed really close to us, and some seemed on the other side of the store. Either way, they were loud."

At some point the shooting stopped. The only sound left was the store music and ringing phones.

At 3 p.m. police began ordering the gunman to surrender over a speaker, according to the Denver Post analysis.

Montoya heard the gunman clearly say he was naked and surrendering. She involuntarily gasped "Oh, my God" when she realized how close he was to the door behind which they were hiding. Her panic surged as the phones rang again.

She continued texting with Hansen about the police mobilization and waited quietly. Then she heard the SWAT team run across the roof.

At 3:28, about an hour after the first shot, Alissa was arrested not far from Montoya and her co-worker. She and her co-worker remained hidden until police officers knocked on the door.

It was over, but the worst was to come.

At first it was the bloody footprints that Montoya believes were Alissa's, who was injured in the shooting.

Then it was co-worker Rikki Olds lying on the floor.

"I immediately recognized who she was," Montoya said. "For a moment I was hoping it wasn't her, but I knew immediately it was."

It became obvious to Montoya that some would not walk out of the store.

"I didn't know how many were killed," she said, "but that was confirmation that someone we knew was killed."

Olds, 25, a store service manager, was working the self-checkout lines when she was shot, the Denver Post reported. She often picked up the tills or helped with overtime in the pharmacy, Montoya said.

"I've never seen her upset," Montoya said. "She was high-energy."

Montoya had registered Olds for her covid-19 vaccination in recent weeks. Olds had talked excitedly about a tattoo.

"That's when I realized she was my age," Montoya said. "I always assumed she was older because she was always so responsible and working one of the head positions.

"It was devastating when we saw her."

Employees Denny Stong, 20, and Teri Leiker, 51, also were killed. Others who died were Neven Stanisic, 23, Tralona Bartkowiak, 49, Suzanne Fountain, 59, Kevin Mahoney, 61, Lynn Murray, 62, and Jody Waters, 65.

Montoya doesn't remember the feeling when she hugged her boyfriend outside the grocery store, a moment captured on camera by Colorado Public Radio.

"I was in shock," she said. "He probably felt more relief than what I felt. We were all in shock. I was glad to see him, but I was in shock."

Another memory also sticks with Montoya.

As relief began washing over the survivors as they sat on a bus that would transport them away from the scene, Denny Stong's mother boarded the bus searching for her son.

He would not join the bus of survivors. Montoya, like the others on the bus, would hug their families again. Others could not.

Montoya admits that she doesn't know all the ins and outs of gun law policies floated in the world of politics, but she wants people to understand what guns can do.

"I think being there that day, I realized that no one should be able to annihilate as many people as they want to," she said. "They shouldn't be able to walk into one safe space and be able to do that."

OLYMPIC TRIALS

Montoya made the trip home to Arkansas to see her parents.

Spending time with family was an important thing on her list. It was something she hadn't done in more than a year because she had used vacation time to travel to running events.

"I'm taking a step back and starting off with the little things that mean a lot," she said.

After a week she returned to Boulder.

She doesn't think she can return to work at the King Soopers, but at some point she'll likely return to work somewhere else. She'd been studying to retake the Medical College Admission Test, but she has decided to go with her original scores for college applications.

"As of right now, what we are planning on doing is focusing on training through the Olympic trials and see how I am feeling after that," Montoya said.

She is among 13 athletes training with the Roots Running Project, Hansen said. The team ranges from 5K to marathon runners with the goal of competing in the Olympic trials and national competition.

Hansen is hopeful but understanding when it comes to Montoya's return to training.

"We know it is going to be hard for her for a long time," he said. "Emotionally, psychologically."

In some ways, Hansen said, all these life goals are trivial compared to what Montoya has experienced. Yet, she's worked a lifetime to reach them.

"The Olympic trials is four years of process and success," Hansen said. "It is really the top 20 to 30 women in the country who get to compete. You hope she will get that reward."

Hansen said it's impossible to know exactly how the shooting could affect Montoya.

"She is someone who can internalize a lot," he said. "She has done a great job recounting her experience, but she might need to seek guidance and counseling. I hope that process is allowed to take place and she can still experience being at the Olympic trials."

Laura C. Wilson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., has focused on post-trauma functioning from mass trauma. She says most people's exposure and understanding of mass shootings consists of the immediate aftermath.

"They see the news coverage of the crime scene and watch the investigators' news briefing," Wilson said. "Within a few days the news trucks leave and people's attention turns to the next major news event. This is when the grief and recovery work starts for the survivors."

Wilson said every person will process the events differently. Some will have intense, acute reactions that subside in a few days or weeks. Effects could be chronic for others, and some experience delayed reactions.

"Each person is different, and their recovery will look different," she said.

Wilson didn't speak specifically about Montoya's running community but said community overall is a powerful strength for survivors in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

"It creates a sense of belonging, which can promote psychological recovery," Wilson said. "Having supportive family and friends to validate the feelings and help you process your thoughts is certainly a protective factor."

Montoya said she feels she is processing the shooting well. She understands that it's day to day, but she doesn't plan to let it hold her back from running. The Olympic trials still have her focus, Montoya said, and she believes running, as always, will be the key to moving forward.

"Running has been a part of what I do each day for 13 years," she said. "I think it is nice to have something like that. I don't know what I would do if I didn't have running right now."

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