Darcy Lopez, 46, kept her eyes focused on the exit as she walked out of the King Soopers grocery store where she had just survived a mass shooting.
She had hidden for an hour from the gunman, cramped inside a cabinet in the cheese shop where she worked. When she finally emerged from behind the counter, a SWAT officer pointed her toward the store’s entrance, where another cop was guiding people out.
“I didn’t look around — nothing. I just went straight for the cop and the door. I just wanted to get the heck out of there,” said Lopez.
Emerging into the late afternoon light, her first feeling was relief. But over the hours and days to come, she would realize what had happened in that nightmare hour. The Boulder store, she learned, had been “annihilated.” The self-checkout was all but destroyed. The front windows had been blown out. Armored police units had cut through the ceiling and rammed through the front.
Far worse was the blood — 10 people murdered in the building and its parking lot. Three of them were her coworkers: Denny Stong, 20, Rikki Olds, 25, and Teri Leiker, 51. As she learned their names, all known and loved, Lopez felt an intense physical reaction begin to grip her body.
“I'm a very hard person, you know. I'm like a rock and — this was something different,” Lopez said.
Later, she asked her store manager: “What? We weren't already hard enough? This had to happen too?”
After a year on the front lines of the pandemic, it’s a reminder that for retail workers there is no hiding from the threats that haunt public spaces — whether it’s violence or the virus.
“I think they’re beat up. Emotionally, they’re drained. They’re angry, they’re frustrated,” said Erik Cornell, a union representative with UFCW Local 7 who works with employees at the Table Mesa store and several others.
“Right now, they’re scared, particularly in this area,” he added.
There are more than 150 King Soopers stores in Colorado, making it one of the state’s most common places to shop. But the Table Mesa location, like all retail workplaces, has its own life.
It was a regular stop for high school students on break, longtime neighbors and people on their way to ski. The south Boulder store’s been in operation for more than 30 years, and some of its 130-plus employees have been there nearly that long.
“They’re just a beautiful group of people. I’m proud of them. I think they went through hell,” Cornell said.
Darcy Lopez, the cheese shop manager, has been an employee of King Soopers for five years and a member of the Boulder store for two. That would make her a veteran at most locations.
“Not at this one,” said Lopez, a Local 7 member. “Five years — I’m just a rookie.”
The store maintained low turnover rates in an industry where staff changes are frequent, thanks in part to a core of workers who grew close amid the constant stress of a retail environment. People worked together, even fell in love. A mother and son worked at the store, and others just felt like they were family.
Teri Leiker worked there some 30 years before her death this week, a friend told Reuters, having found the job through a program for people with intellectual disabilities. She was the kind of familiar presence that people remembered and befriended.
Another of the dead, 25-year-old Rikki Olds, was a star of the store with her multicolored hair and cheerful dances — someone who held the place together.
“She was like the punk rocker kid. But she was smart, and she was a hard worker. She learned. She knew bakery, she knew deli, she knew Murray's Cheese Shop, she knew the front end, she knew ClickList, she knew almost everything," Lopez said.
Another colleague said Olds was “beloved.” After experiencing instability in her childhood, she seemed determined to take care of herself and others.
“Yes, she wanted to be a nurse, but that plan got altered,” said her uncle, Robert Olds. “So Rikki had a backup plan, and Rikki was pursuing her dream of being a store manager at King Soopers.”
Another team member, Denny Stong, 20, was the youngest person to die in the attack.
“He was such a cute kid. He was good. He was just so good,” Lopez said.
The store remains closed indefinitely amid a criminal investigation. It also will require significant repairs before reopening.
Kroger has promised to pay employees at least through this week, according to Cornell, the union representative. Lopez said she was waiting for more details, but she was confident that people would be paid next week, too. A representative for the grocery chain didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the staff are starting to reconnect; some met yesterday at a local hotel with the store and district managers, Lopez said. It’s likely some won’t ever return to work at King Soopers. Lopez herself doesn’t want to see the place until it’s fixed and reopened — but she wants to get back to work as soon as possible. She’s proud of her work as an accredited master of cheese and a manager of the cheese shop.
“It’s my passion, my love,” she said. “I honestly can't imagine doing anything else.”
In the wake of the shooting, thousands of people have gathered at the shopping center to leave notes and bouquets, crosses, candles and clothing outside a chain-link fence. Among them are signs calling for new limits on guns, especially assault-style weapons, like the one likely used Monday.
Lopez agrees. She’s angry, she said, and she wants to see her people protected.
“It’s just so many rounds so fast, and it went on for so long,” she said. “One person, one gun — when does it end?”
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