Alexandria, VA

Yesterday, Killer E.S.P. (1012 King Street) manager Mary Gmaz decided she’d had enough.

Gmaz said a recent encounter with owner Rob Shelton left her rattled and she decided to walk out immediately. The rest of the staff left with her, leading to the second mass-quitting among the local coffee shop’s staff this year.

Gmaz and others who quit described the last few months at Killer E.S.P. as a dream job that quickly spiraled into a nightmare.

“When I first got hired, I was ecstatic,” Gmaz said. “It seemed okay when I first started working there. The owner spouted crazy political nonsense, but I thought, ‘That’s just Rob.'”

Gmaz and others said they weren’t aware at first of the previous staff quitting — over Twitter posts calling coronavirus a “scam” and liberalism “a disease” — until customers started checking in to make sure they were being treated fairly.

“I didn’t find out until after my interview when my mom told me in the car, because she read the article,” said Ella Duncan-High, a 10th grade student at Edison High School who started working at the shop this summer. “I was aware of that but I was still willing to train there to see how it goes. From the interview, it was pretty chill. It wasn’t until I was training and I asked Mary and the other girls if they knew anything about it, and they told us Rob’s side of the story.”

Duncan-High said the staff was told that the owner’s Twitter account had been hacked by spiteful former employees, a story Shelton repeated to Washingtonian and other news organizations. Employees said that they’d been told earlier employees had been stealing from the register, but multiple employees noted that security cameras for the store had been taken down and stored in the back of the restaurant.

Shelton could not be reached for comment before publication.

Gmaz, Duncan-High and other employees told ALXnow that what had started as conspiracy theories spiraled over the next few weeks. Duncan-High said one of the earliest alarms was in how Shelton was approaching COVID-19.

“He told me in the interview that masks are stupid and COVID is a sham,” Duncan-High said.

“It was a dumpster fire,” Gmaz said. “He was completely anti-mask, did not believe in masks at all. He would make fun of us for wearing masks and said, ‘You’re part of the age that would survive,’ and he would shout at customers, ‘This is a mask-free zone.'”

Gmaz said that the line-crossing behavior was how Shelton interacted with the women that worked at the shop, many of whom were under 18.

“It was just crazy conspiracy dude, but then after about two months of working there he started becoming inappropriate with the other girls,” Gmaz said. “He would touch my lower back or put his hand on my shoulder or would graze against women. He put up this facade to pretend that he was just crazy old Rob and a fun-loving dude, but it’s creepy and he touches people inappropriately.”

A male coworker, who did not want to be named, told ALXnow that Shelton would make inappropriate sexual comments about women after he was done talking to them.

“The girls didn’t feel safe,” Gmaz said. “I had originally come there every day, Monday through Sunday, from open to close to make sure they were safe.”

Gmaz said that this past weekend she was doing work in the store and Shelton frequently grazed or touched her, despite repeated requests to stop. Eventually, Gmaz left.

“[My coworkers] messaged me and asked me to come into the store because they wanted me to talk to them about what had happened,” Gmaz said. “When I was down on Friday I was helping Rob with the teas and he became very inappropriate, touching my back, grazing his hand over me. I kept telling him to stop and he wouldn’t listen.”

Duncan-High said that the other women had experienced similar physical contact with Shelton, but hadn’t put their experiences together until they spoke together in the back room of Killer E.S.P. Employees at the shop said they agreed that if Gmaz left, they would as well.

“We feel safer with her there, and we knew if she left, Rob would escalate,” Duncan-High said. “We couldn’t imagine the type of management we’d endured if it was just Rob. She changed so much around there. She made everything more organized and running smoothly, more so than it was before. That also played a role in why we quit.”

On Monday, Killer E.S.P was closed, with no awning or signage showing its logo, and no activity inside.

The women who quit say they’re now looking for work again in the area.

“I’m still a little bit of a shock,” Duncan-High said. “It’s still hard to think about. My only concern now is trying to find a place I love working at. I was happy at Killer, the environment fit perfectly. The problem was Rob.”

“It feels like huge weight off my chest,” Gmaz said. “It was a personal hell.”

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