OPINION | Locked and loaded at an Atlanta Publix: An American mess

This is the cache of weaponry that Atlanta police confiscated from Rico Marley, who was seen in the Atlantic Station Publix restroom with an AR-15 on March 24, 2021. (Credit: Atlanta Police Department)

Credit: Atlanta police

Credit: Atlanta police

This is the cache of weaponry that Atlanta police confiscated from Rico Marley, who was seen in the Atlantic Station Publix restroom with an AR-15 on March 24, 2021. (Credit: Atlanta Police Department)

It was a chilling moment in Atlanta, coming just two days after the slaughter of 10 people at a Colorado supermarket and a week after a man killed eight people at three Atlanta area spas.

Then, poof! It sort of went away.

Last week, a 22-year-old man was arrested at a Publix supermarket in Atlantic Station, armed with a mini-arsenal. Rico Abednego Neequaye Marley had four pistols on his body, as well as a shotgun and an AR-15 in a bag. All guns were loaded, with rounds in the chambers, police say. And he wore body armor.

The story spoke of the horror that may have been averted when a driver for Instacart, the grocery delivery service, spotted the man in the bathroom with an AR-15, now the go-to gun for mass murder.

Police captured Marley after his extended bathroom visit. The battle-gear-clad cop who entered the store ― and maybe thought about the officer killed in the Colorado rampage ― wrote in his report that he immediately encountered the suspect, who seemed surprised to see him and gave up immediately.

Marley remains in jail, facing 11 felonies. Not much is known about him, except he had a couple of minor arrests and passed the initial query for having no major mental issues.

I reached out to Charles Russell, who alerted store employees about his odd bathroom visit. His story — and records — indicate it took a surprisingly long time for police to get alerted. He said it was at least 15 minutes between his bathroom encounter and when officers came. Records indicate it was about 20 minutes. No one ever called 911. It was more of a daisy chain of phone calls. (I’ll get to that later).

And here’s another thing: It turns out the body-armored dude with six guns might not have committed felonies, according to the lawyer for Georgia Carry, an org that bills itself as “Georgia’s no-compromise voice for gun owners.” (More on that later, too.)

Charles Russell, a driver for Instacart, tipped off Publix employees that a man with an AR-15 was in their bathroom. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Our story starts when Russell, 25, a gregarious Pittsburgh native, got a call to pick up groceries at the Atlantic Station Publix. It was 1:23 p.m. on March 24 when he arrived and immediately went into the restroom at the front of the store.

Working for Instacart can net $20 an hour, said Russell, but you must hustle. He recently separated from the mother of his 2-year-old daughter and moved to Atlanta for a new start. He’s sleeping on a friend’s couch until his momentum builds.

In the restroom, Russell saw a tall, thin man dressed in a white T-shirt who appeared to be homeless. The man was muddling around the lone stall, using paper towels to clean up what looked to be a fairly substantial toilet overflow.

Russell figures the guy was changing his clothes. Then he glanced in the stall — the door was open — and spotted an AR-15 leaning against the wall.

He left the restroom as calmly as possible, saw a clerk at the customer service counter a few feet away and said, “Hey, there’s a gun in the bathroom.”

Russell was unsure if the gun belonged to the man in the bathroom but figured it did. The guy wasn’t menacing, but Colorado was on Russell’s mind. He had to say something.

Russell did not call 911. He thought it was the store’s responsibility to do that because perhaps he’d misread what he saw.

The clerk called someone on the phone, presumably a manager, then took another customer, Russell said.

He waited briefly and didn’t think the employees were responding quickly enough to the possible danger, so he went outside to flag down a cop or security guard.

Russell returned inside about five minutes later without a cop and saw the clerk still at the counter. Seeing Russell, the clerk got on the phone and said, “It’s the guy who said he saw a gun.”

The manager showed up as several checkout counters nearby still operated, Russell recalled. He said the manager told him, “I’m working on it, sir.”

He says the manager called Atlantic Station security, who arrived. He believes security then called 911 but he is wrong. Police later checked and were surprised: No one called 911.

Russell, store employees and security guards then gathered outside the restroom until the door opened and Marley, now wearing a blue hoodie, walked over and awkwardly asked for a pen. A Publix employee gave him one and he returned to the restroom.

“I’m like, ‘That’s the guy. That’s the guy.’ Why are you letting him go back to the bathroom?” Russell recalled.

A woman then entered the store, Russell said, and told everyone to evacuate. He said there were dozens of people inside, including employees.

Russell said a security guard outside told him he’d heard a click-clack, like a gun being loaded. Russell said he heard it too.

A couple of minutes later, the cops arrived, went in and immediately arrested Marley, who was walking out, dressed in body armor. His intentions are still not known.

Publix did not want to respond about what Russell perceived as a delay. “We’re grateful for Mr. Russell’s actions, and we are thankful no one was injured,” a spokeswoman wrote and then deferred comment to the Atlanta police.

Neither police nor the Fulton County district attorney’s office would say much about the case or Marley’s intentions. Police did release three short tapes of radio calls that helped describe the chain of communication.

It went like this: Russell enters the store right after 1:23 p.m. (according to an Instacart record). He enters the bathroom, leaves and tells clerk (twice in five minutes). Clerk calls his boss (twice). Publix manager calls Atlantic Station security. Security calls an Atlanta police lieutenant on the phone.

The lieutenant called a police radio dispatcher at 1:40 p.m., asking if she got a call about a guy with an AR-15 at a Publix. She hadn’t. He said Atlantic Station security had called him. He told her to “send some units and we’ll figure it out.” The responding officer said he got the call at 1:41 p.m.

At 1:43 p.m. police were pulling up nearby, and at 1:48 p.m. there was a call of “We have one detained,” followed by an officer saying, “Good job everyone.”

Marley was charged with five counts of criminal attempt-aggravated assault, and six counts of possession of a firearm during commission of a felony.

John Monroe, Georgia Carry’s attorney, is not sure Marley committed any felonies. He said state appeals courts have ruled there’s no such thing as an “attempted” aggravated assault. And if no such crime exists, he said, then the accompanying charges ― possession of a firearm during commission of a felony — must be dismissed because there was no felony.

“So, they are left with nothing,” said Monroe, who is not connected with this case.

If the handguns were on Marley’s body, he could be charged with a misdemeanor if he has no carry permit. And long guns, including AR-15s, can be carried in plain sight without a permit. You remember the guy who proudly toted his AR-15 to Atlanta’s airport to scare passengers and taunt cops?

You can’t be a felon with guns, of course. And, yes, Publix does have a gun-free zone policy, but the worst Marley could get under that directive is a trespassing violation, and that would be if Publix asked him to leave and he didn’t.

What a country.