BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — The man accused of killing 10 people at a Colorado supermarket in 2021 told a mental health evaluator he bought firearms to carry out a mass shooting and suggested that he wanted police to kill him, according to Wednesday court testimony.
Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa made the statements at a state mental hospital during an August evaluation that determined he was mentally competent to stand trial, said Loandra Torres, the forensic psychologist who evaluated the 24-year-old suspect.
The defendant, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, also “recognized that there are guns that have his fingerprints on them and that can be used as some evidence against him,” Torres said.
Alissa is charged with murder and multiple attempted murder counts after the shooting rampage on March 22, 2021, in a crowded King Soopers store in Boulder, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Denver. He has not yet been asked to enter a plea.
Judge Ingrid Bakke held Wednesday’s hearing to evaluate Alissa’s fitness for trial at the request of his public defender, Kathryn Herold, who wanted a chance to debate the competency finding.
Forced medication administered to Alissa since March under a court order has significantly improved his mental condition, according to Torres and a second psychologist who testified for the prosecution. His condition had deteriorated prior to the forced medication.
“By allowing forced medications, involuntary medications, he was able to take a medication they hadn’t been able to try before and that really made a difference,” psychologist Julie Gallagher said. She said the hospital’s finding that Alissa was competent was supported by her review of the case.
Alissa entered court in a striped orange and white jumpsuit and sat fidgeting next to his defense attorneys. Victims and the family of those killed filled the courtroom.
Competency evaluations at issue
During cross examination, defense attorney Herold focused in part on bias in competency evaluators, especially in charged, high-profile cases.
Prior to his admission to the state hospital in December 2021, Alissa had not been hospitalized for psychiatric problems, treated or medicated, said Torres, a state hospital forensic psychologist who has been evaluating Alissa.
Individual therapy sessions, in addition to the forced medication, helped him become competent, Torres said.
The judge was required to schedule the two-day hearing but denied Herold’s request for another evaluation from the mental hospital. Herold argued that Alissa is not competent and cited the psychiatric evaluations describing him as “profoundly mentally ill.”
Schizophrenia can shake someone’s grasp on reality, potentially interfering in a legal defense in court. Mental competency to move toward trial entails Alissa being able to understand court proceedings and help Herold with his defense. It does not mean he’s been cured.
Mental competency is also separate from pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, which is a claim that someone’s mental health prevented them from understanding right from wrong when a crime was committed. Alissa discussed using such as a plea as a legal strategy in his conversations with Torres, she said.
The August evaluation was the first that ruled Alissa competent. The case has been on hold while victims and families of those killed are eager for it to move forward.
Alissa’s inability to reach mental competency for over two years is rare, said Gallagher, adding that it was due to the severity of his illness.
Experts at the mental hospital determined Alissa was competent because he was consistently taking medication and in a stable therapeutic environment, according to prosecutors in August, who added that his competency is “tenuous.”
Alissa recently punched another patient in the face multiple times, said Hareesh Pillai, Alissa’s psychiatrist at the state mental hospital, adding it was one of a few diversions from Alissa’s typically reserved behavior.
‘He indicated that there was some intention to commit suicide by cop’
Initial evaluations throughout 2021 and 2022 found Alissa incompetent for trial largely due to his inability to communicate clearly and at times his outright refusal to discuss the allegations against him, Torres said.
“There were several times where he noted that he couldn’t talk about it or it was too difficult or overwhelming to discuss,” said Torres, who added that they asked about the charges to see if Alissa was thinking rationally and understood the legal ramifications of his case.
But he was more forthcoming by August and when asked why he purchased firearms, “he said it was to commit a mass shooting,” Torres told the court.
“What did he seem to indicate was his intention, carrying out a massacre?” asked District Attorney Michael Dougherty.
“He indicated that there was some intention to commit suicide by cop,” Torres said
In the over hourlong evaluation Alissa acknowledged he had schizophrenia and that he’d heard voices in the past, Torres said.
Alissa was convicted of assaulting a fellow high school student in 2018, according to police documents, but that remains one of the only known crimes involving Alissa prior to the shooting.
During the rampage in Boulder he allegedly shot at least one person in the parking lot outside the grocery before moving inside. Employees and customers scrambled to escape the violence, some leaving loading docks in the back and others sheltering in nearby shops.
A police officer, shoppers and several store employees were killed and Alissa was taken into custody at the scene. The King Soopers was remodeled and reopened last year.
Nick Edwards, 24, and his mother were in self-checkout as the shooting began and heard loud bangs outside. When the attacker entered the supermarket, Edwards heard a shot, then silence, then a woman’s scream. They caught a glance of the shooter before they escaped.
For months afterward Edwards said he would jump with fright every time his boss popped open a bag of frozen onion rings in the restaurant where he worked. The whole family fell into depression, said his mother, Sarah Moonshadow.
The mother and son were in court for Wednesday’s competency proceedings.
“It’s been since March 22 of 2021,” said Edwards, “It’s about ready for him to be shipped off.”
When asked how he felt about being in the same room as the suspect, Edwards shrugged. “He’s got to be there,” he said, adding “just to see the people he missed.”
Bedayn 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.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown contributed from Billings, Montana.