Unsolved 2010 killing of Rock Hill clerk baffles police

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comFebruary 23, 2013 

  • Want to help?

    Anyone with information about the killing of Malek Salem is asked to call Rock Hill Police Detective Tim Ayers at 803-325-2554 or Crime Stoppers at 877-409-4321.

— Three years ago this week, a clerk working the night shift at a Rock Hill gas station tried to fend off a gunman with a knife before his attacker’s bullet struck him in the chest and killed him.

Today – after three years of investigation by Rock Hill detectives, probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, DNA tests by the State Law Enforcement Division and countless tips and nudges in the wrong direction – Malek Salem’s murder remains unsolved.

Frustrated and with no suspects, police are asking for help.

Rock Hill Police Detective Tim Ayers, the lead investigator on the case, is certain “somebody out there knows; someone changed the way they do business on a day-to-day basis.”

Just before midnight on Feb. 28, 2010, police say surveillance video shows a burgundy car with a missing right-rear hubcap pulling into the Pride gas station on Anderson Road, just off Exit 77 of Interstate 77.

A man wearing a puffy coat, dark pants, a green shirt and a toboggan that cloaked much of his face walked into the store and confronted Salem, 22, while he stood behind the sales counter.

The man pointed a gun at Salem and demanded money. When Salem refused, the gunman made his way behind the counter. Salem grabbed a butterfly knife – a folding pocket knife – hidden near the register and reached for the gun, Ayers said.

Salem and his assailant wrestled to the floor toward the front of the store, battling for control over the gun, a high-caliber revolver.

During the scuffle, the gun went off, propelling a bullet that cut through Salem’s forearm and lodged in his chest.

But Salem, whom Ayers described as a “good-sized fella,” wasn’t down yet.

“He’s still fighting,” Ayers said, even as the gunman hits him in the head with the revolver. Eventually, Salem slumped to the floor.

The gunman ran out of the store, avoiding pools of blood spreading across the floor as he passed a truck driver who was walking in.

As the truck driver entered, taking two steps to the sales counter, Salem got up off the floor, staggered behind the sales counter, grabbed his cell phone and called 911 before he finally collapsed, Ayers said.

The truck driver grabbed some towels and tried to stop Salem’s bleeding but it was already too late. Salem was taken to Piedmont Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Born in America of Yemeni descent, Salem had been working the night shift at the store for a couple of weeks. At the time, his wife and child still lived in Yemen. The Pride gas station closed down a week after the first-year anniversary of Salem’s death.

It has since re-opened under a new owner.

Police believe the gunman jumped into the passenger side of the burgundy car, believed to be a four-door Mitsubishi, which had been off-camera for most of the robbery.

Security footage recorded gleaming headlights that cast a shadow of the passenger door opening and closing – giving police reason to believe that the gunman didn’t act alone.

“You know there’s a second person,” Ayers said.

Customers who were outside on the opposite side of the store told police they didn’t see anything. Customers and employees at Waffle House, next door to the gas station, also said they saw nothing.

Other customers walked into the store, Ayers said, and despite puddles of blood on the floor and signs of a struggle, they didn’t seem to realize Salem had been shot – or chose not to notice for fear of getting involved.

“It was very strange when you watch the video and see how nonchalant everyone was,” Ayers said.

All the while, Salem was slumped on the floor behind the counter; his blood leaking onto his own knife; his cell phone covered in his own blood.

Tests

Investigators haven’t been able to find any DNA from the attacker on Salem’s body, said Ayers, who watched as medical examiners performed his autopsy.

Forensic pathologists collected fingernail clippings and searched for hair follicles, dead skin cells, blood tissue or any other “foreign material” that might have linked Salem to the gunman, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast said.

Those samples, along with droplets of blood leading from the store and into the parking lot and on Salem’s knife, were sent to the State Law Enforcement Division, hoping Salem managed to injure his attacker.

Officials at SLED received the samples on March 21, 2010, said SLED spokesman Thom Berry. About a month later, SLED returned the results, which showed that all the blood police gathered from the floor and knife belonged to Salem.

Not one drop of blood turned up a profile for his killer, Ayers said.

A year later, police sent the knife again to SLED, hoping to find some trace of Salem’s attacker on the weapon’s sharp edges. When the results returned, again they only showed Salem’s blood again.

Because the gunman wore thick clothes, Ayers said, it’s possible the knife never penetrated his skin. Police aren’t sure if Salem ever managed to actually stab the gunman.

“We know he had a knife in his hand and he was using it for everything to try to save his life,” Ayers said, “but whether he was able to get through the layers of clothing and all that…we have no idea.”

Officials dusted for fingerprints, sweeping the countertop, floor and glass front door.

The results were the same – nothing.

“It’s a convenience store,” rife with fingerprints from hundreds of customers, said Rock Hill Capt. Mark Bollinger.

“Everybody and his brother is touching that door coming and going,” Ayers said.

The gunman

Images from at least five surveillance cameras mounted at different angles around the store initially confused the suspect’s race and description, police said.

One angle shows the gunman’s hands, which appear white. Another shows the gunman facing Salem. In that footage, his face appears to be light-skinned, leading police to believe he might have been Hispanic.

A shot of the gunman pulling up his pants after his struggle with Salem clearly shows black buttocks, Ayers said, and another glimpse of the gunman shows a dark-skinned face.

Police now believe the gunman is a black man, about 5 feet 7 inches to 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing around 160 pounds. It appears that he has facial hair.

The truck driver who passed the gunman as he was entering the store told police he didn’t get a good look at the suspect, Ayers said.

A “non-employee employee” – a man who did work at the store in exchange for beer and cigarettes – was in the back of the store near an old lunch diner when the assailant entered and held Salem at gunpoint.

When Salem and the gunman began to fight, that person ran next door to the Waffle House, where he told the employees to call the police.

“He was of no help,” Ayers said, adding that police don’t believe Salem was set up.

After Salem’s death, police checked with several area hospitals to see if any had treated a man for a stab wound that same night.

At all the hospitals they checked – some in South Carolina and some in North Carolina – no stabbing victims matched the limited description of Salem’s attacker police had on hand, Rock Hill Police Capt. Mark Bollinger said.

As days passed and the investigation was under way, police monitored surrounding counties and towns, looking for similar robberies. None exactly matched Salem’s killer’s method.

The possibilities are endless for where the suspect fled, police say. The Pride gas station wasn’t far from I-77, and it’s possible the gunman drove through town and left.

Throughout the investigation, police have identified four possible suspects. One who showed the most promise was a Chester man with previous convictions for larceny who was spotted with a weeks-old stab wound that had developed gangrene.

The tip, like all the tips in the case, came in through Crime Stoppers of York County, Ayers said. Police are unable to say exactly what those tips entail.

The Chester man told a Crime Stoppers tipster he had been stabbed during an armed robbery. He told another person he had been cut by glass while trying to commit a burglary.

“We thought that was our guy,” Bollinger said. “Then, it fell apart.”

Nearly a year later, that man was arrested in connection with a drug sting by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. After he was convicted, a plea deal required him to cooperate with law enforcement.

He consented to DNA and polygraph tests, Ayers said, and he passed “with flying colors.”

The car

Rock Hill Police enlisted the help of the FBI to follow leads and enhance camera images of the car. All they were able to determine is that it’s a four-door burgundy Mitsubishi that, at the time, had a right rear hubcap missing.

The license plate is blurry, pictures show, and it’s unclear if it’s a standard South Carolina plate, a custom-made plate or a temporary tag.

In the days after the shooting, Ayers said, police put information about the car and robbery into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, a storehouse of crime information to which all law enforcement agencies have access.

Still, no leads.

This is the first time police have released pictures of the burgundy Mitsubishi in hopes someone will recognize it.

Video surveillance shows the car circling into the parking lot, its headlights streaming across the gas station. The next camera shot shows the gunman walking into the store.

A video camera on the front of the store that likely would have shown more of the car and the suspect’s face wasn’t working at the time, Ayers said.

The car is then seen coming back across the lot before it goes off camera, parks and the headlights turn off.

“We know for a fact that it’s that car,” Ayers said.

When the gunman left the store, outdoor cameras recorded the shadows of the passenger side door opening and closing.

Help

Investigators still gather to discuss Salem’s murder in cold-case meetings, Bollinger said. Police speak with the family, most of whom live in Buffalo, N.Y., at least every two months.

The FBI has assisted by following leads that haven’t been solid. The last tip police received was more than a year ago.

“It’s just one of those cases you don’t get anything,” Ayers said. “Somebody out there knows. Someone changed the way they do business on a day-to-day basis.”

Most killings Rock Hill Police investigate have some kind of leads for police to follow, Ayers said, including several outstanding murders from 2012.

No arrests have been made in the stabbing death of 76-year-old Cora Campbell, found dead in her South Jones Avenue home on Dec. 14, 2012, or Elonia Ware, a 41-year-old woman who sat in her Powderhouse Street home when unknown gunmen fired into her house, killing her.

Those killings aren’t unsolved, Rock Hill Police Lt. Brad Redfearn said, but are still “active investigations.”

“We do have possible suspects in each case,” he said. “On several of the cases, we’re waiting on DNA evidence to return from SLED.”

“None of them,” Redfearn said, except for Salem’s death, are “whodunit” cases. “We’re trying to get enough evidence to have a successful prosecution.”

Last summer, police arrested one suspect in the beating death of 65-year-old Alexander “Boot” Hardin and another suspect in the shooting death of Jamar Ferguson, 31. Murder charges against both men were dismissed when prosecutors determined there wasn’t enough evidence to secure convictions.

There haven’t been any more arrests in those killings.

A month after Salem died, police released surveillance photos and video of the Pride hold-up. They hoped then that someone might see something and call in a valuable tip.

The last tip police received was more than a year ago. Like the others, it didn’t help.

Now, police are asking for the public’s help in solving the crime. They’ve already released the surveillance video and photos from the scene.

They hope that if the public sees the images again, someone might recognize something or someone that might lead to a solid tip.

Police don’t know much about the shooter, but they don’t believe he prepared for a fight.

“I don’t think he was ready for the fight, or the gun to go off,” Ayers said. “The shot was in the struggle.”

It’s unclear if the gunman might still be in the area, but Ayers believes someone in York, Chester or Lancaster counties has information that could lead to an arrest.

Police hope grisly details and new information will help them close the case and give Salem’s family solace. Attempts to reach family members for comment were unsuccessful.

“It’s the killing of another human being,” Ayers said. “Our biggest thing is somebody out there knows something that will help us bring closure to the family.”

Surveillance video of Pride gas station robbery, Part 1

Surveillance video of Pride gas station robbery, Part 2

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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