America was a dream for Rick Patel. America is still is a dream for this hard-working immigrant from India with kids to feed.
Even with two bullets in his body from a July shooting at the store he has worked in day and night for 16 years.
“I love this country,” Vipul “Rick” Patel said of the America where he was shot by two young punks who had come in his store for years.
The dream is also a nightmare because Patel has more than $45,000 in medical bills, despite the irrefutable fact that he was the victim of a heinous, violent crime.
Patel got a bill from an ambulance that took him in a bloody heap from behind the store counter of the Cherry Road Discount, at the busy corner of Main Street and Cherry Road, on July 25. The ambulance drove about 200 yards.
He got a bill for the helicopter ride that took him from the 50-yard line of nearby District Three Stadium to the Charlotte hospital to save his life from bullets that ricocheted around his body.
He received no bill from the city of Rock Hill for the cops who chased and caught the men who robbed and shot him, or for the firefighters who worked to save his life.
He received no bill from the tough prosecutor named E.B. Springs who put the two guys in prison who robbed and shot him.
He received no bills, but cards and flowers – piles of them – from the wonderful neighbors and regular customers who mourned after Patel was shot.
Patel did get and still gets doctor bills, sometimes in the mail as he gives away candy and food to poor kids in his store who have no money. Or kids whose parents come in his store to buy beer and cigarettes, leaving crying hungry children standing there with nothing but tears and sobs and noses running from the sobbing and hunger.
Rick Patel, bullets in his body, gives the kids something, always.
“My culture, my religion, we take care of children before we ever put a thing in our own bodies,” said Patel, a Hindu from Gujarat, India. “I still get bills though.”
Patel said all this from behind the counter of his store this past week. He left the courthouse to go to work, while two young men who once came to the store as regular customers went straight from the courthouse to prison for shooting Patel in a robbery attempt.
They didn’t even steal anything. They did what cowards do – shoot and run.
A former customer named Kadeem Sanders, a big tough 20-year-old at the time, bought a stolen rifle on the street for $30 last July, and then hatched a plan last summer to rob the store, according to court testimony last week.
It wasn’t Sanders on trial, though.
Sanders pleaded guilty late last year to attempted murder, conspiracy, attempted armed robbery and possession of a weapon during a violent crime. He pleaded guilty to everything he was charged with, because he just plain got caught.
His deal was a shortened sentence in exchange for testifying against the other guy in the plot, Kairon Maldonado. Maldonado was all of 17 when he decided to become an armed robber.
“I knew him; he came in here as a customer,” Patel said.
Sanders was caught after the shooting by gutsy police patrol officers in Rock Hill who saw two men run from the store after the shooting, then gave chase and did not quit chasing. Maldonado was later identified by Patel in a photo lineup and arrested.
That’s where race enters this case and this store, as race almost always enters life in Rock Hill and South Carolina and America.
Maldonado claimed he was misidentified. In last week’s trial, an expert witness for Maldonado, a white college professor who was paid $1,000 for doing so, claimed that Patel could have misidentified Maldonado because it is not uncommon for people of one race to get identifications of people of another race wrong.
The person getting it wrong is not racist, said the well-paid expert, just wrong.
Patel is not white. He is dark-skinned. Asian. Indian.
Maldonado was identified in court by the white college professor as African-American. Sanders, the shooter, is also black.
Springs, the white prosecutor, responded by doing what any real person would do. He said in court that all this racial stuff was nonsense.
Springs said the reason Patel picked out Maldonado was simple – Patel knew Maldonado from the countless times he had been in the store.
Another friend of the two hoodlums even testified that he tried to talk them out of the plot the night before.
But there was no talking these two young men – no matter what race they are – out of trying to steal from a man – no matter what race he is.
Sanders held the gun; Maldonado yelled, “Give me the money!”
In court last week, seven months after he was shot for no reason, Patel watched the store surveillance video for the first time. It showed him being shot after reaching for the alarm button. The whole thing took a few seconds.
Watching it in court is horrible, but not nearly as bad as real life.
Race makes no difference at all when a man is shot.
“The blood, it hurt all over again,” Patel said.
The jury this past week acquitted Maldonado, now 18, of attempted murder, but convicted him of attempted armed robbery and conspiracy. Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III, who has presided over so many shooting trials in York County over the past 20 years, immediately sentenced Maldonado to 20 years in prison.
Sanders, the shooter who testified that Maldonado was his partner in crime, will be sentenced soon to 14 to 17 years in prison, which was a condition of his plea deal.
Ricky Patel still has two bullets in his body and a store to run.
He still gets bills charging him for bleeding and trying not to die from gunshots from criminals.
He still gives candy to kids.
He still thanks those loyal customers who were upset when he was shot.
He still goes home to his small children, hugs them with his left arm that does not work like it used to, and tells those small, dark children how great America can be no matter what you look like – if you are willing to work hard.