An investigation is under way to determine why a Safeway warehouse employee walked into work and opened fire on his coworkers Sunday afternoon, killing one person and injuring five, including a Denver police officer.
The suspect, identified as 22-year-old Michael Julius Ford, was shot and killed during a shootout with SWAT officers inside the massive Safeway Denver Distribution Center, located near Interstate 70 and Colorado Boulevard.
He shot randomly at coworkers, and when he shot SWAT officer Derick Dominguez, the other SWAT team heard Dominguez cry out, and fired back at Ford, police said.
"(Ford) was unprovoked and shot Officer Dominguez unprovoked. That's when the other officers came to Dominguez' aid and were shot at," Denver police Chief Gerry Whitman said at a Monday afternoon press conference. "They were exchanging quite a few rounds in there ... He shot at us six times and we returned fire 17 rounds. So, it was a gun battle that he started."
Ford was struck by seven bullets, Whitman said.
Ford was armed with a long-barreled handgun and fired a total of 16 rounds, Whitman said. He died at 4:24 p.m., 72 minutes after the first 911 call was received, Whitman said.
Who Was Michael Ford?
At the family home, located about five minutes from the Safeway plant, Ford's uncle and older brother told 7NEWS that Ford is a quiet, unassuming, responsible man who was born and raised in Denver. They don't know where he got the weapon or the anger to execute the deadly shooting.
"I never would have expected Michael ... that this would happen to Michael," said Ford's uncle, Roy Ford. "He was a good kid, never got in trouble, never gang-related that I know, and I've known him since birth. He was always a good kid that you would love to talk to and to meet."
Roy Ford said he saw his nephew a few days ago and that he showed no signs of anger or frustration about his employer or coworkers.
"I'm trying to understand what happened, and what went wrong, and it's just puzzling," Roy Ford said. "The reason why we're shocked is because it doesn't seem like it was Michael. It wasn't Michael."
His family said the actions that police describe is totally against Michael's character.
Ford has no previous criminal record except for a few minor traffic violations.
Safeway spokesman Jeff Stroh said Ford worked filling orders in the produce department and had been employed at the center since February 2005. Ford was scheduled to work Sunday and did report to work. His shift had just begun when he started firing at other employees and trying to set fires in the building, Safeway officials said.
Stroh said that there were no early signs of any trouble.
"In all of our investigations yesterday and this morning, we can find no problems of any kind that were brought forward involving Mr. Ford -- none whatsoever, " Stroh said. "No complaints to supervisors. No calls to the employee assistance program hotline. Nothing whatsover to predict this kind of outcome."
Stroh said he also had not received any complaints about Ford. He said the company has a "zero-tolerance" policy on harassment and offers a 24-hour hotline to help employees with personal or work-related issues.
Police on Tuesday also identified the victims who were shot Sunday.
Maurico DeHaro, 32, was pronounced dead at the scene. Mark Moran, 37, remains in critical condition with a head wound. John Mendoza, 27, is hospitalized in serious condition with a face wound. Luis Relford, 34, was in fair condition and 27-year-old Oscar Martinez was treated and released. All the men all worked in the produce department at the warehouse and none of them were supervisors, Stroh said.
Relford is in fair condition with a gunshot wound to the wrist. Relford spoke to 7NEWS from his hospital bed and said there was no warning of what was about to happen. He said he was picking up his orders as usual and then felt a sharp pain in his wrist.
"It happened so quick. I wasn't thinking about the pain. I just got up and ran," Relford said.
Relford's mother told 7NEWS that her son is improving after surgery and should be OK.
"It didn't affect me until afterwards, you know. After he was in the hospital and after I went to call my son. That's when I really, kind of, broke down," said Mamie Relford, the victim's mother.
The officer who was shot in the left hip broke his leg, and remains in serious condition. Dominguez, 38, had surgery on the leg Monday morning and his condition is improving, police said.
Whitman called Dominguez a "superstar" and his SWAT supervisor said Dominguez was a high-energy enthusiastic professional who has been a member of the SWAT team for five years.
Dominguez was off-duty Sunday afternoon when the call came out for assistance at the north Denver warehouse. He left his wife and children to respond to the shooting, along with 21 other SWAT officers.
Whitman said two SWAT officers who killed Ford, 5-year SWAT member Ryan Grothe and James Sewald, who has been a SWAT member for eight to 10 years, were off-duty Monday after being interviewed by investigators Sunday night.
The rampage started at about 3:12 p.m. when witnesses said Ford burst in to the produce area, fired at least five shots and set several small fires.
"I seen him. He was like about 20 feet away from me. He was just shooting and lighting fires. He wanted to turn the building on fire," said Safeway worker Jesus Lopez. "I just ran. Everybody just ran out."
"At that point, he started shooting everybody who was around," said Safeway employee Scott Stroman, who heard accounts of what happened through other coworkers.
About 152 people were working at the time. Some witnessed the shots and ran for their lives. Others heard the gunfire and were told to flee by coworkers and supervisors scrambling to get outside. Some employees were trapped inside and hid in various parts of the the sprawling warehouse until SWAT officers stormed the building and found the gunman.
"It was just a normal day when all of a sudden everyone was running out of the building. Everybody was just scared and running," Stroman said. "Everybody was hiding behind boxes, hiding behind walls, anything they can get, you know, behind to not get shot. Because this guy, he was just shooting everybody at random."
"We just got off our forklifts and ran to the exit door," said another Safeway worker.
The gunman started multiple fires in one location and one fire in another location, firefighters said. The sprinkler system inside the building kicked off immediately and contained most of the fires. Firefighters couldn't enter the building at first because the gunman was still at large inside.
Workers ran out of the building with their arms raised as about 50 police officers arrived with their weapons drawn and surrounded the area. Police set up a barrier around the perimeter of the warehouse and worked to pinpoint the gunman's location, which they did quickly, thanks to repeated 911 calls coming from employees still in the building.
Several groups of officers then charged inside the warehouse and then about an hour later, confronted Ford.
"There were 150 people in there we had to protect, and he was already shooting at people," Whitman said.
Whitman and Safeway management applauded the courage of the patrol and SWAT team officers who stormed the warehouse. Stroh said police officers at the scene created order out of chaos.
"They resolved the situation in which we believe was resolved in a way that minimized the casualties. We really can't say enough. We will be eternally grateful," Stroh said.
The 1.3 million-square-foot warehouse stretches several city blocks so it took officers some time to to clear the scene and make sure that there were no other suspects or victims inside. It was only after the firefight, when officers had a chance to sweep through the large warehouse, that they found DeHaro's body.
During the ordeal, employees huddled on a pile of gravel near the corner of the parking lot, waiting for the standoff between the gunman and the police to be over. Police later cut the chain link fence to get them off the property and give them more peace of mind.
The frontage road between I-70 and the building was clogged with fire trucks, police cars and RTD buses that were dispatched to shelter employees while they waited to be interviewed by police. I-70 in the area was closed in both directions for more than three hours as officers worked to clear the scene.
"I'm just lucky I'm here. You know, I'm scared, I've never been through anything like this," Stroman said. He had been just started working at the warehouse two weeks ago.
Firefighters eventually gained access to the roof and extinguished the remaining fires. Denver Fire spokesman Phil Champagne said stacked paper products were ignited in several areas. A small fire rekindled in the paper products center of the facility Monday morning but it was quickly doused by workers with a fire extinguisher.
Police said Tuesday that Ford used flammable logs to set paper products on fire. Police said Ford's fire-starting attempts were unsuccessful, but generated a lot of smoke that made the officers' work more difficult. He said the warehouse, a 1.3 million-square-foot building, is full of rows of shelves and boxes, with many hiding places
Parts of the warehouse were reopened Monday and that store officials contacted grief counselors for employees needing help. The company planned to evaluate its safety policies, Stroh said.
"Whenever workplace violence occurs, you really have to take a step back and look at what you're doing," Stroh said.
Workers said that the warehouse is usually a calm workplace, and that most people get along.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, murder is the fourth-leading cause of fatal work-place injury in the United States. In 2004, there were 551 workplace murders in the U.S., or about 10 percent of the total fatal work injuries.
Safeway employees who need help or counseling can call 303-320-8914.
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