‘Murder Kroger’ undergoes major rehab

Nothing can keep Damon Parker from shopping at this city’s newest Kroger, not even the awful memory of a fatal shooting he witnessed there 28 years ago.

Parker, his cousin Stephanie Buffington and their friend Cynthia Prioleau were nearly inside the Atlanta supermarket when a gunman in a car approached and began shooting in broad daylight.

Prioleau, 25, was the only person hit. She died that day. Her killer has not been found. Since then, at least two more unrelated killings and a series of assaults have gone down at the Kroger and a neighboring apartment complex, the Atlanta Police Department told CNN.

The violence paved the way for a nickname that some directly affected by the crimes hope will vanish as the store reopens this October after a top-to-bottom rebuild: “Murder Kroger.”

While it’s not unusual for a business’ local reputation to earn it an informal moniker, the proliferation of Murder Kroger on T-shirts, stickers and even in song lyrics has been particularly painful for those with personal ties to the attacks.

Each repetition of the eerie phrase can gnaw at grief that’s still quite raw, even if that’s not the intention.

For those not connected to the killings and attacks, the phrase may just be a throwaway punchline. It also, more deeply, could reflect a community’s use of humor to cope with tragedy or, conversely, reveal a society that’s grown numb to the emotional pain that stems from too-common violence, experts told CNN.

“At this point I’m desensitized to it,” Parker said of his gut reaction to the nonchalant way some people mention Murder Kroger. Still, he wishes the nickname would disappear.

“Take some kind of responsibility, don’t treat it like it’s some kind of trivial thing,” he said. “Just think about any tragedy we’ve seen since 2016 and anyone who has trivialized it in public. The Orlando nightclub shooting and the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso: Would you make a T-shirt for that?”

A vigil for a doomed grocery site

By the time Joshua Richey, a construction worker, was killed in 2015 in the Kroger’s parking lot by two men trying to break into his truck, the lore of Murder Kroger was near its zenith.

The Atlanta-based band Attractive Eighties Women in 2007 recorded a song titled “Murder Kroger.” Its lyrics include: “It’s a grocery store with a deadly twist / You’ll get shot in the head for your shopping list / Murder Kroger / it’s the worst place to shop in all of Atlanta / you could lose your life over 12 pack of Fanta.”

During Conan O’Brien’s 2010 “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” members of his crew stopped by the Kroger for a blog post on TeamCoco.

And on Wikipedia, the Murder Kroger page since mid-2015 has collected more than 250,000 page views and 70 edits.

When the Cincinnati-based grocery chain owner announced in October 2016 it would shutter the location to make way for 725 Ponce, a huge, multipurpose development with a new 65,000-square-foot Kroger store, two people refused to let it go quietly.

Rachel Bowen and Rowyn Hirsch organized a satiric candlelight vigil held in the grocery’s parking lot a day before it closed. Roughly 50 people attended. A moment of silence was held for victims of crimes there. Some people lit candles. Others wore Murder Kroger T-shirts, while one woman sported a Kroger paper bag with the word “murder” written on it in a blood-like font.

“I had just turned 19 at the time and had started the event as a sort of joke with a friend because I, not unlike a lot of people, use humor to cope with tragic things,” Hirsch told CNN. “Suddenly, our joke had turned into a news story.

“We had people who knew the original victim reaching out and telling us that we were being insensitive, sending us threatening messages and calling us names,” she said. “Mind you, we were just the face of it. The whole city had been calling it Murder Kroger for years. It all was a bit overwhelming.”

Parker did not find the vigil’s atmosphere respectful. The event inspired him to share his experience at the store in the story, “Surviving Murder Kroger,” published the following month.

“It was a party,” he said. “Everything was mockery. There was nothing serious about the whole thing.”

The roots of Atlanta’s fascination

Social and economic factors might explain the disconnect between some of those who attended the vigil and the victims’ loved ones, said Sarah Cook, a psychology professor at Georgia State University (GSU), which has a downtown campus about three miles from the Kroger.

These sorts of differences may have allowed vigil attendees to put social distance between themselves and the victims and thus to ignore the costs or consequences of the event for their survivors, Cook told CNN.

The event and the nickname that inspired it may also mirror the effects of violence in America, GSU’s John Burrison, an English professor who studies folklore, told CNN in an email.

“I think ‘Murder Kroger’ also reflects a fascination with crime and violence (as evidenced by the number of ‘cop shows’ on commercial TV, and in folklore, the large number of American murder ballads). I wouldn’t call that fascination uniquely American, but ours is certainly a violent country compared with many others,” Burrison said in an email.

For Buffington, who witnessed Prioleau’s shooting, the Murder Kroger fascination has a simpler explanation: The moniker and its trappings exemplify people’s “very morbid minds,” she said.

“Murder should never be a joke. What if it was one of their loved ones?” she said. “These individuals are profiting financially off the murder of someone’s love one.”

The rise of ‘BeltLine Kroger’

The new Kroger reopened on October 16 along the Atlanta BeltLine, a popular multiuse trail. It features a large outdoor seating area, a Starbucks and a BBQ restaurant. Local headlines dubbed the store “Beltline Kroger,” while others refused to let “Murder Kroger” die.

“The store signifies Kroger’s ongoing commitment to the community and the ongoing economic prosperity of Atlanta,” Kroger spokeswoman Kristal Howard told CNN. “The City of Atlanta, community leaders, residents and businesses have come together to create and nurture a very special and safe place for residents and visitors.”

She declined to comment on the store’s long-held nickname.

A lot has changed in Atlanta since the first killing at Kroger in 1991, when Fulton County recorded 231 murders, data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation show. In 2017, that tally was 124.

As the murder rate has dropped across the county, the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, along which the new Kroger sits, has transformed neighborhoods around it into some of the most desirable and pricey places to live in the city thanks to millions sunk into commercial development.

One of the many patrons who will visit the new Kroger is Parker, now 47, who plans to frequent it with his two goddaughters.

The various Murder Kroger paraphernalia don’t bother him as much as they used to. Still, his community’s tacit acceptance of the store’s violent characterization still does.

“There’s nothing they can do at this point,” Parker said. “They’ve let it go on too long. It’s kind of too late. It’s something that should have been addressed a long time ago.”