Article Thumbnail

A 16-Year-Old Repeatedly Rejected a Coworker’s Advances. Then, Police Say, He Murdered Her

It’s one of a number of recent stories of entitled men throughout the world taking revenge on women who rebuff them romantically — violent retribution that incel forums cheer on from afar

About a year ago, 16-year-old Riley Whitelaw reported to her manager at a Walgreens in Colorado Springs that she was uncomfortable because a 28-year-old male coworker had made multiple advances toward her. 

Last month, Whitelaw requested a change to her shift schedule, stating that she was once again uncomfortable because of the behavior of that same male coworker. Working the volume of hours she wanted, however, necessitated working alongside Joshua Johnson — so she did. 

Her fears came to fruition on June 11th, when Whitelaw was allegedly killed by Johnson in the store’s employee break room. Surveillance video captured Johnson preparing for the attack, taping paper over windows in the break room area, stacking bins to obscure a camera and even placing a “restroom closed” sign outside, according to the arrest affidavit

Police interviews with two managers at the Walgreens captured how Johnson’s interest in the teen became an obsession. One manager noted that he had warned Johnson after the 2021 incident, asking him to keep things professional; the suspect “appeared to be receptive” to the criticism, per the affidavit. Despite that, a second manager told law enforcement that she had noticed Johnson “acting jealous” at work when Whitelaw’s boyfriend began employment there in the spring. 

No one noticed Whitelaw’s murder in the moment. But in the immediate aftermath, manager Crystal Ishmael reportedly spotted a man outside the Walgreens, hiding behind a dumpster amid the overwhelming smell of bleach. It was Johnson, he later admitted to detectives. 

Walgreens’ corporate office didn’t respond to multiple questions about Whitelaw’s complaints, whether management documented the harassment claims and company protocol to address unwanted advances from a coworker. “We are very saddened by this tragic incident, and extend our deepest condolences, thoughts and prayers to the family and loved ones of our team member. The safety of our customers and team members is top priority, and we are working with local authorities in their investigation,” Fraser Engerman, senior director of external relations for Walgreen Company, wrote in an email to me. 

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to truly know the extent of the interactions between Whitelaw and Johnson, his lifestyle and whether he held particular grievances or ideology that would fuel fatal violence against a female coworker. However, the observations and interviews thus far paint an eerie picture of a man who couldn’t accept rejection, and indeed wanted to make his power known by any means necessary. 

The tragedy in Colorado Springs is reminiscent of other instances of “rejection violence,” which unfolds all over the world and ranges from verbal abuse online to physical beatings, rape, murder and acid attacks. Often, the escalation follows a familiar pattern: The victim rebuffs a man, sometimes repeatedly, but is largely unaware and helpless when that man returns with a plan to attack. 

For example, in October 2021, a 19-year-old woman was found dead in a wooded area in Orlando, Florida. Authorities believe Miya Marcano was killed by a maintenance worker at her apartment complex, who made multiple advances, was rejected and then used his keys to enter her home and lay in wait, killing her in an ambush as she returned from work. 

Similarly, 24-year-old Caroline Nosal of Madison, Wisconsin was shot to death in 2016 by her coworker in the parking lot of the grocery store they worked at. Christopher O’Kroley, 26, admitted during the trial that he had been rejected repeatedly by her, going on to say that “it was easy to kill her” because “she ruined [his] life.” 

Elsewhere, a Missouri man killed two different women after they left him, claiming in one instance that “if I can’t have her, nobody can.” A Singaporean man reportedly traveled to Australia to convince his ex-girlfriend to be with him, and then beat her with a hammer and stabbed her in the neck when she said no. A man in San Francisco slashed a woman across her face when she rejected him while walking on the sidewalk. And men in New York City beat and kicked a woman for walking away from them after she ignored their advances during a liquor store run at night.

Most recently, China has seen a wave of public outcry over CCTV video footage that shows women being attacked after calling out a man for unwanted touching. In the video, a man walks up to a table of diners and grabs one of the women, who quickly pushes his hand away from her. He does it again, and after a second rejection, rears back to strike the sitting woman with force. Multiple men then join the fray, punching the first woman’s friend and even throwing a chair at them. 

These incidents are followed closely by men who identify as “incels” online and celebrate such women “getting what they deserve,” justifying the violence by claiming men are the systemic victims of women when it comes to relationships and sex. Users on a popular incel forum posted about the Walgreens killing, joking that Johnson was probably attacked by Whitelaw first for “being ugly” and how she should have been assaulted, too.

“Funny thing is that the foid already complained to HR but was ignored. The work he was doing was just more valuable than the concerns of some 16 year old pretend-to-work-****,” one commenter wrote. 

“It makes me happy to know there are people like this existing in the real world,” another added. 

Experts have long warned that rising misogyny online connects to a dense tapestry of real-world attacks, which are often framed as individual instances of abuse rather than a pattern of behavior informed by broader male grievances with society. The sociologist Michael Kimmel has suggested that the phenomenon of “angry white men” in Western nations is rising because of “aggrieved entitlement” — men who are struggling, feel humiliated and believe they must seize what is owed to them, thereby falling into extremist and misogynist ideology to justify it. 

And Tristan Bridges, an expert on masculinity studies who is a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, notes that in general, men are more prone to turning to violence to manage rejection than women are. “If men experience rejection as threatening to their social identity as men, then they may try to over-demonstrate masculinity in some other way,” Bridges told VICE in 2016. 

Every single attack on a woman by a man who was rejected is its own unique tragedy, informed by the culture, social pressures and individual DNA of the killer. And yet, as inceldom and misogyny grows in liberal democracies around the world, it’s obvious that this is beyond even a systemic issue — it’s a global one with no easy solution in sight. 

It suggests the continuing erosion of norms around male aggression, in cultures wrangling with standards around masculinity as an idea. And it once again demonstrates how far we are from using holistic tools to reach and redirect lonely young men who are on a path of pursuing violence as catharsis. It recalls the words of the Isla Vista killer, who in his manifesto blamed women for ruining his future. “If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you,” he wrote. “You denied me a happy life, and in turn I will deny you a life.”