Thaer Mahdi has tried several times to go back to what’s left of his alterations shop, but he has never brought himself to actually step inside.
He’s stood on the sidewalk and thought about the racks of gowns and jackets and jeans that he was mending at the little store on State Street, which were all toppled and destroyed when a truck crashed into his front doors.
He’s thought about the sewing machines in the back, too — the spot where he hunkered down as police confronted the driver at the end of their chase and hundreds of bullets burst through the walls around him from outside. And he’s thought also about how he had figured he was safe in Utah and started his business again here, but that day brought back all of the trauma he lived through before fleeing Iraq.
“My dad doesn’t want to remember any of that, but he does,” said his son and translator, Sam Mahdi, during a phone call Wednesday night. “It was so rough for him.”
It’s been more than a year since the shootout landed at the front of the family shop in April 2019, and Princess Alterations has remained closed. It wouldn’t really be possible to reopen, even if Thaer Mahdi wanted to and could walk through the doorway, because of the damage left at the building. But more than that — though he considers himself lucky he wasn’t killed — the business owner and refugee has felt paralyzed by the attack.
And so, in an attempt to recover, Thaer Mahdi is filing a $3 million lawsuit against the three police agencies that fired at his store.
“He’s been forced into an early retirement,” said his attorney, Aaron Garrett. “He doesn’t have any way to support himself. And frankly, he’s a shell of himself now. We’re just trying to get justice here.”
The documents submitted to U.S. District Court on Wednesday detail for the first time some of the lingering psychological impacts of the event, but also more of what led up to the massive show of force.
It started on April 8 last year, miles from Mahdi’s shop, when police first got a call that a man had robbed a Holiday Oil gas station in Taylorsville. It was 9:45 a.m.
At 10:20 a.m., another call. This one came from a 7-Eleven in Millcreek. There was gunfire.
More shots were reported at 10:42 a.m. a few blocks away in Salt Lake City. Someone was firing at the Sheraton Hotel, according to the lawsuit. There, police started following a white pickup fleeing from the scene.
The man in the car — later identified as 37-year-old Harold Vincent Robinson — sped away through downtown, shooting a rifle out his window at the officers chasing him.
The pursuit stretched over several miles and jurisdictions, passing Temple Square and City Hall and Pioneer Park. Large intersections and streets were closed. Witnesses reported more than 20 police cars racing down State Street at one point. More than 60 people called 911.
After winding around, though, the chase ended in South Salt Lake near 3300 S. State. At 11:01 a.m., bumped by a squad car, Robinson crashed his truck into Mahdi’s storefront, right below the “OPEN” sign, the lawsuit states.
Police from multiple agencies immediately fired, with 15 guns going off. There were 196 bullets collected. Robinson, who tried to get out of the truck, died at the scene. His family has said he was struggling with mental illness. He had a long criminal history.
Though Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill cleared all of the officers and determined they were legally justified in February, Garrett faults them for doing nothing to ensure that no one else nearby would get hurt — like Mahdi — before they fired. They didn’t try to de-escalate the confrontation any other way, he said.
“This was an admittedly difficult situation,” Garrett said. “But there was a lack of coordination between these agencies. It was seconds between when the car crashed and when they fired.”
When Gill reviewed the situation, he said because of the “complexity of the situation,” he didn’t focus on the officers shooting at an occupied shop, though he acknowledged it’s a miracle no one else was hurt.
Garrett believes that approach was a mistake. The lawsuit claims Mahdi’s constitutional rights were violated because of the excessive force — and it should have been obvious that someone was in the building with the “OPEN” sign and the lights on.
Mahdi’s lawsuit names Salt Lake City Police, Unified Police and the Utah Highway Patrol as being negligent and using “massive and unnecessary” force. Those officers need to be trained better, it argues.
Salt Lake City Police could not be reached for comment Wednesday night; 10 officers there fired at Robinson. UPD Sgt. Melody Gray said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera would have to look over the lawsuit before making a statement; two detectives there fired at the truck. And UHP Lt. Nick Street noted the situation was “unfortunate” for Mahdi, but: “We haven’t had our legal expertise look at it at this time.” Three troopers there fired their guns.
Mahdi’s shop was torn apart and is still unoccupied. He can’t work and can’t sleep, the lawsuit states. And he now hears a constant buzzing in his ears. Garrett said the business owner has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, too.
“My client was just an innocent bystander,” Garrett said. “We hope that, as a result of this, something can be done to address that so this doesn’t happen again to another person.”
The worst impact is that the event revived some PTSD that Mahdi had from living in Iraq, the attorney said. The family resettled in Utah in 2009 after being targeted by insurgents in the country for helping the U.S. military. The Mahdis faced assassination attempts and bombings there, as well as in a refugee camp they stayed at in Jordan, Garrett said. They were targeted, on top of that, for having done alterations for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s relatives.
Sam Mahdi said his dad can no longer talk about that day at the shop and suffers from flashbacks. He was a tailor for 40 years and is now in his 60s. Shortly after the shootout, Thaer Mahdi had said: “Today is like reliving the war in Iraq.”
Now, the business owner sees Robinson’s body lying on the ground outside his shop when he closes his eyes. He pictures blood on the pavement and can’t tell if it’s real, something he saw in Iraq or something his mind is making up. He pictures dust and rocks spraying up around him when he’s sitting on the couch.
Garrett added: “The mental anguish and suffering that he has gone through as a result of this and what happened to him when he was in Iraq is where the real damage lies.”
Mahdi has tried to go back through the doorway and enter his shop again. He wants to sew. He thinks he could fix his machines. He just can’t cross the threshold to go inside.