It happened, of course, when he did not expect it, when it was the farthest thing from his mind, when he happened to be out in the community -- and a safe, civilized part of it -- enjoying his life, having dinner in a restaurant with his wife and kids, figuring out how much of a tip to leave.
I'll call him Mike because, for reasons soon obvious, he doesn't want his name used.
Mike and his family were at Sizzler last Saturday night. The Sizzler restaurant in Cockeysville, of course. Something horrific happened there around 8:30.
For Mike and his family, the evening had started at Circuit City in Timonium. They had driven over from Reisterstown to look at some television sets; they were thinking about buying a new one. Then, they stopped at a friend's house to shake hands on the holiday and wish everyone a happy new year. Afterward, Mike's wife wanted to get dinner; she wanted Chinese. The kids -- a son and a daughter, ages 11 and 8, and the daughter's friend -- wanted to go to Sizzler, up York Road. The kids prevailed.
The Sizzler is a clean, bright place, with lots of brass and glass, a plentiful salad bar and the aroma of steaks being grilled. From the front door, the salad bar is to the right. The front counter, where customers place orders, is to the left. Mike and his family sat at a table by the door. Mike had his back to York Road. He could see the entire restaurant from there.
They had dinner and, just as Mike was figuring how much of a tip to leave, just as the kids were starting to goof around with their coats and fight over after-dinner mints ---- "There were five mints for three kids, and they were fighting over who would get two mints and who would just get one" -- just as those incidental things were happening, the first gun appeared.
"We saw a guy come around the counter to the salad bar with a gun in the air," Mike said.
Two more gunmen converged by the counter. One more stood by the door, right next to Mike, with a dark bag in his hand. Mike thinks it was a gym bag. His wife thinks she saw a dark, paisley sewing bag.
"The one in the middle of the restaurant seemed to be in charge," Mike said. "He had a raspy voice. He shouted, 'Everybody cooperate and no one will get hurt! Empty your pockets, put all your wallets, your money and your jewelry on the table.'
"They all wore dark clothing, everything dark, from head to shoes. One of them had perfectly creased denim jeans, as if they had just come from the cleaners. They wore masks. They were all, I'm guessing, in their mid-20s, and all big, more than 6 foot. . . . My daughter was still goofing around. She had pulled her coat up over her head, you know, as kids do, and she and her friend were snuggled against my wife at the table. My wife had her pocketbook between the two girls.
"The guy at the door turns to us and says -- and he must have said it a dozen times -- 'Keep those kids quiet, keep them down, keep them out of the way. No one gets hurt.' Ours were the only kids in the restaurant now. There had been some kids earlier -- a birthday party. But they'd just left. At most, there were 20 patrons in the restaurant now, all ages.
"The two guys at the front jumped over the counter to the register, then jumped back. Something must have been going on there before we were aware of it, because these guys were moving people to the back of the restaurant and they had already moved the employees to the back, by the counter.
"Then the guy with the bag moved to the middle of the restaurant to collect money from the tables, but before he did, he said it again to us: 'Keep those kids quiet, keep them down, keep them out of the way.' "
The one with the bag had stepped up to the salad bar, more than 30 feet away, when Mike told his wife to move. "I said, 'Let's get the hell out of here.' I wanted her and the kids out of there first. So as she moves to leave, the one with the raspy voice shouts, 'Get back down!' And my wife froze, came back and sat down again."
The restaurant was silent now. The gunmen collected the loot. The one with the bag came back to Mike's table.
"I had $40 in my front pocket . . . I threw it on the table and he grabbed it, then he went back to the salad bar. That's about when I saw the guy come out of the kitchen."
It was one of the employees. It turns out his name was John D. Tillman, 29 years old, on work release from prison, trying to get back on track with a job at Sizzler.
From where he sat, Mike could not hear what was said. But he saw the lead gunman, the one with the raspy voice, hold a long-barreled handgun up to Tillman's head. The gun actually touched Tillman's head. The gunman was calm.
Other witnessed told police the gunman demanded to know where the manager of the restaurant was. Tillman apparently refused to tell him.