The suspect in the mass shooting at a Colorado supermarket came from an immigrant family that had achieved many of the outward signs of success. But their life in America had not been untroubled.
ARVADA, Colo. — Two decades after they left Syria for a new home in the Rocky Mountains, it looked from the outside as if the Alissa family had made it in America.
After years of moving from rental to rental, they bought a seven-bedroom gabled home in the Denver suburbs near golf courses and walking trails. Their children attended high-rated schools. The family ran a handful of Middle Eastern restaurants across the Denver area where customers raved about the lamb kebabs and the pillowy pitas. Friends recalled the big, multigenerational family as hard-working and generous.
But there were also signs of turbulence. Court records showed that some members of the family had faced evictions, had been cited for reckless endangerment and had run-ins with the police over the years. A real-estate dispute within the family had spilled into court. There were tensions with neighbors about noise, toddlers from the Alissas’ home wandering into the street with no adults in sight and cars screeching in and out of their driveway.
Whatever its complications, the Alissa family’s story of immigrant striving has now become yoked to a distinctly American tragedy of mass murder after Ahmad Alissa, 21, was charged with gunning down 10 people at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo.
The young man who was a daily presence in the family’s lives — living in an upstairs bedroom of the family home, working at the family’s Sultan Grill restaurant — has now become the urgent focus of a wide-ranging criminal investigation.
Nearly a week after the shooting, investigators say they are still searching to understand Mr. Alissa’s motives and do not know why he chose a supermarket 15 miles from his home.
Detectives have not yet fully combed through his electronic devices and other evidence — a process that could take days or more — and Mr. Alissa is not talking to law enforcement personnel, according to a person briefed on the investigation.
A lawyer for Mr. Alissa said in court that Mr. Alissa had an unspecified mental illness, echoing public statements his older brother Ali had made asserting that Mr. Alissa was paranoid and had delusions of being watched and followed.
Now, the suspect’s family has gone quiet in public. They have vanished from their home in the Westwoods subdivision of Arvada, neighbors said. They declined multiple requests for comment.
This account of the family’s life was pieced together through court records, police reports and interviews with neighbors, former classmates of Mr. Alissa and family friends. Most spoke on the condition they not be identified because they did not want to be tied to a mass murder.
The Sultan Grill, the Middle Eastern restaurant in Arvada the Alissas once declared was “proudly founded by an immigrant family more than 10 years ago!” has gone dark since the shootings. Some people have posted angry online reviews condemning the family. But a number of customers have left notes of sympathy and flowers at the door, and friends said the family did not deserve to be blamed for the murders.
“This could destroy their lives, their businesses, everything they’ve worked so hard for,” said Michelle Archuleta, 42, whose daughter had been in a long-term relationship with Imad Alissa, an older brother of the defendant.
Ms. Archuleta said her daughter had spent four years living with the Alissa family and had worked at another of their restaurants, the Amir Grill, in the foothills town of Golden, Colo. She said her daughter and Imad Alissa had been wed in a traditional Muslim ceremony but had never legally married.
Ms. Archuleta said she had found an outgoing and friendly family when she went to the Alissas’ home for birthdays and dinners. There were children playing everywhere, and the younger generation who grew up in the United States would translate for their mother, who did not speak English. Ms. Archuleta said she remembered Ahmad Alissa as quiet and verging on antisocial. But she said her daughter, who died in 2020, had never raised any concerns.
“We never thought anything was wrong,” Ms. Archuleta said.
The 21-year-old man now charged with adding another bloody chapter to Colorado’s history of mass shootings was born in Syria, just three days before the attacks on Columbine High School in 1999.
On a now-deactivated Facebook page, Mr. Alissa said he had moved to the United States in 2002, years before a vicious civil war turned millions of Syrians into refugees. The Syrian cities that some in his family name as their hometowns — Aleppo and Raqqa — became bombed-out battlegrounds and a haven for the Islamic State as Mr. Alissa and his siblings were growing up and starting businesses in the United States.
The Alissas were part of a tiny Syrian diaspora in Colorado. Arab-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, and most of those who identify as “Arab” on census surveys say they are from Iraq, Somalia or Sudan. Just 324 Syrian refugees were resettled in Colorado in the last 40 years, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Public records identify Mr. Alissa’s father as Moustafa Alissa, 62, and social-media profiles and interviews indicate that Ahmad was one of at least seven siblings. Several of his older brothers found a foothold in the restaurant business, opening food trucks that later grew into restaurants.
Records show that at various times, the Alissa brothers also ventured into a car-service business and — at one point — junk removal. A brother-in-law, Usame Almusa, a recent immigrant from Syria, filed corporate papers to form yet another restaurant business.
The family moved at least three times over the past two decades, from the largely middle-class city of Aurora to an apartment in Denver to a rental in Arvada, where a former neighbor remembers family members sometimes stopping by to ask questions about the suburban chores of lawns and weeding.
Mr. Alissa had barely started at Denver South High School when the family moved again, and he had to transfer to first one high school, then another, in the nearby city of Arvada. They moved into their current home, a seven-bedroom, 7,400-square-foot house in a quiet subdivision, in 2017, according to public records, and paid $634,000. One of the older brothers, Ali, 34, is listed as its owner.
At Arvada West High School, Mr. Alissa joined the wrestling team and often went to the gym with his friends. His classmates described him as someone who had only a few friends, often talking about his interest in science and the books of Stephen Hawking. He had been bullied during his earlier years in school, one friend said, and several said he had a volatile temper.
During his senior year in November 2017, Mr. Alissa suddenly and without warning began punching a classmate in the head, continuing to strike him even after the boy had fallen defenseless to the floor. An Arvada police officer who was working in the school found the boy bleeding from his nose and mouth, throwing up, with his right eye swollen shut, according to an account from the officer.
Mr. Alissa told the school’s principal that the classmate had been bullying him for the past year, calling him a “terrorist” and other racist names, claims that the classmate denied at the time and again this past week when reports about the assault surfaced in the wake of the shooting. Mr. Alissa wrote in a statement at the time that he did not remember much of the assault and that he had “blacked out and rushed” the classmate, according to the police report.
Mr. Alissa was suspended from school for about two weeks and pleaded guilty in court to a charge of misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to one year of probation and 48 hours of community service.
While acquaintances describe Mr. Alissa’s large extended family as outwardly harmonious, there were signs of friction.
In 2014, Ahmad’s older brother Imad pleaded guilty in Denver to carrying a concealed weapon, records show. He was arrested again four years later on a charge of possession of a weapon by a previous offender, though prosecutors did not pursue charges.
In 2016, a female member of the family pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless endangerment and was given a deferred sentence after she agreed to take a parenting class.
In 2018, the Arvada police responded to a call at the house that stemmed from a dispute between Imad Alissa and his wife, Ms. Archuleta’s daughter. The couple had broken up (they later reconciled, Ms. Archuleta said), and a fight over a torn mattress had escalated to the point that the police were called.
Nobody was charged with any crime, but in the course of investigating the call, officers also happened to speak with a member of the family — Ahmad, who gave his own account of who had ripped the mattress.
Then, earlier this year, in January, two of the brothers, Ali and Muhamad Alissa, filed a lawsuit in Denver against one of their sisters, Aicha, and her husband, Mr. Almusa, the recent immigrant from Syria.
The dispute is over a Denver home, purchased jointly by the four. The brothers want to sell the home, but their relatives living there are opposed.
A lawyer for the Alissa brothers declined to comment, as did Mr. Almusa.
Over the past week, those who knew Mr. Alissa in high school have been trying to reconcile their memories of a sometimes affable, sometimes angry wrestler and martial-arts fanatic with the obese, shirtless man who was dragged out of the grocery store by the police, blood spilling from a gunshot wound to his leg.
One former wrestling teammate of Mr. Alissa’s at Denver South High School, which Mr. Alissa attended before moving to Arvada, said Mr. Alissa would sometimes miss practices when they wrestled together in the winter of 2014-15 and that he had been far from a standout athlete but that he had never made any waves on the team.
Mr. Alissa seemed to vanish, former classmates said, after his graduation in 2018.
“What happened in those four years since graduating is what’s on everyone’s mind,” said Bruce Niyonkuru, the former teammate.
Investigators have unearthed a few ominous glimpses of his life just before the shooting.
Six days before the attack, Mr. Alissa bought a Ruger AR-556 pistol, a handgun that resembles a shortened assault-style rifle, from a gun store just three miles from the family home. About two days before the attack, a relative saw him back at the family home, playing with what she told the police looked like a “machine gun.”
After the attack, the Mercedes C-class sedan that was often seen parked in the driveway of the large family house was one of the cars left in the parking lot at the King Soopers grocery, along with all of the other cars whose owners would not be driving them home. An empty rifle case was left in the passenger compartment.
Jack Healy reported from Arvada, Colo., Ali Watkins from Boulder, Colo., and Stephanie Saul, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Sara Aridi from New York. Contributing reporting were Bryan Pietsch in Arvada, Adam Goldman in Washington, Mike Baker in Seattle and Maggie Astor in New York. Alain Delaquérière, Kitty Bennett, Susan C. Beachy and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.