On edge, on alert

Wendy Hernandez, center, and Jackie Singh work the counter at the Quick Mart at Heckle Blvd. and S. Cherry Rd. on Friday. The store is next door to the Cash on the Spot store that was the scene of a robbery and shooting Thursday. The Quick Mart is collecting donations for the shooting victim, 42-year-old Ida Neal Lord.
Wendy Hernandez, center, and Jackie Singh work the counter at the Quick Mart at Heckle Blvd. and S. Cherry Rd. on Friday. The store is next door to the Cash on the Spot store that was the scene of a robbery and shooting Thursday. The Quick Mart is collecting donations for the shooting victim, 42-year-old Ida Neal Lord.

Vigilant may be the best word to describe convenience store clerk Huy Pham.

From 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., he smiles and chats with the people entering his family's business on the corner of Rock Hill's Willowbrook and Confederate avenues. But after a streak of shootings in stores similar to his in the past three weeks, Pham admits the hair on the back of his neck stands a little taller each time the door chime warns of an approaching customer. He looks at the faces of each patron a second longer. The shootings have forced him to wonder if he or someone in his family might be the next victim.

"I'm watching all the time. Not so much for me -- I'm not afraid to die -- but for my family," Pham said Friday in between selling gas and accepting a delivery of Budweiser just in time for the weekend. "A lot of people try a lot of stuff."

Pham, whose Vietnamese immigrant parents own the H&H Mart, joins many local store clerks and customers who are racked with anger and apprehension after four people were shot in local store robberies since the end of January. Despite experts' warnings, some are even suggesting clerks should arm themselves and fight back.

Police say each of the robberies have similarities, and they're investigating if the crimes are related.

'Give guns to everyone'

Jimmy Muldani owns the Quick Mart at the corner of Cherry Road and Heckle Boulevard. His store was surrounded by police Thursday afternoon after a customer at neighboring Cash On the Spot check cashing service was shot in the head and back during a robbery minutes before 1 p.m. It followed a Fort Mill convenience store robbery and shooting a week earlier and a Rock Hill seafood market robbery and shooting on Jan. 28. Police are investigating all three cases but have made no arrests. None of the victims have died, though Thursday's victim, Ida Neal Lord, was listed in critical condition Saturday.

Muldani said his clerks, some who saw the suspect running away Thursday, are afraid to return to work. To combat the fear of another attack, Muldani is allowing them to keep guns behind the counter for protection, he said.

"Either give guns to everyone, or take them all away," he said Friday afternoon. "People are paying taxes, but for what? I feel no safety. It's ridiculous."

After Thursday's shooting, Muldani's sister-in-law Jackie Singh, the store's manager, placed a sign in the window telling customers not to wear hooded sweatshirts into the store. It's a maneuver designed to help cashiers see the faces of walk-in guests. In all three recent shootings, the gunman has tried to hide his face, according to police.

Singh said keeping her guard up for suspicious behavior is the first line of defense.

"I tell my clerks to stay alert," she said. "That's the most important thing."

Muldani immigrated to the United States from India decades ago with empty pockets. He worked hard and saved to become a small business owner. He said local authorities need to crack down on the violence that's threatening his security and life's work.

"You live in a small town, and you think you are safe. But nowhere is safe," he said Friday, pointing to headlines of the Northern Illinois University shooting where six students died. "If you shoot at someone, you should go to jail for life."

Authorities in Fort Mill and Rock Hill on Friday joined forces with the York County Sheriff's Office in a three-hour meeting. Investigators said they're diligently searching for clues but have not named any suspects.

'Do you shoot back?'

Across town at the H&H Mart, Pham said he has mixed feelings about fending off armed bandits with violence. But he believes it's time for honest business owners to stand up for themselves.

"It's hard to know what's right. What are my rights as a person getting robbed? Do you shoot back?" the Rock Hill High graduate asked. "We should have more ways of defending ourselves. Robbers should be scared to rob people. It might make them change their mind."

Experts, however, say fighting violence with more violence isn't a proven method.

Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said violence multiplies 40 times when clerks try to shoot back.

"It's a bad idea. If someone comes into the store with a gun, their finger is much closer to the trigger than yours. Just like the old Western movies, if you draw second, you lose," he said. "I think you need to look at the numbers and not emotions."

Lenard said the association encourages store clerks to comply with robbers' demands. He said research shows calm cooperation is the safest way to diffuse a dangerous situation. "Treat them like your best customer," he said.

But that didn't help Saltwater Seafood Market owner Ping Chen. On Jan. 28, Chen handed an armed robber all her cash, just like he asked. In return, he shot her shoulder and the hand covering her face after he already had the money.

The Fort Mill store clerk also was shot after cooperating.

"Already had the money, why shoot?" Chen, who has recovered from her injuries, asked last week.

Store owner Ephraim Karzai doesn't have the answer. But he doesn't believe in vigilante justice, either. Karzai, the owner of Rock Hill's Arch Mart, said despite the gunshots, he hasn't become wary of his customers. In three years at his location at the corner of Arch and Saluda streets, he's never had any problems. Until violence strikes first-hand, he prefers to keep a positive attitude.

"People who do this kind of stuff aren't people you expect in the neighborhood," he explains, noting 90 percent of his customers are familiar faces. "Most of your customers are friends. They care about you as much as you care about them."

Duc Nguyen, owner of the Friendly Mart on Hagins Street and Lancaster's Lucky 99, has experienced the violence. The Vietnamese immigrant and father of four said his wife was robbed at gunpoint at one of his stores about a year ago. She cooperated and escaped unharmed. But because of that, and the dozens of times someone has threatened him or broken a window trying to steal beer, he interacts with strangers with caution.

"People you've never seen before, that's a little scary," he said, "Especially when they're wearing baggy clothes where they could hide a gun."

The gripping fear of violence has extended to customers, too. At corner stores, gas stations and neighborhood hangouts across the area Friday, people were talking about the bloodshed.

"I've always been a checker, looking over my shoulder," said Thomasina Weeks, a Rock Hill woman who went to school with 42-year-old Ida Neal Lord, the woman shot Thursday. While stopping at the H&H Mart on Friday for gas, Weeks admitted recent events have made her even more vigilant.

"I called my daughter in Spartanburg today and told her not to even go out at night," she said. "You think you're safe. But you're not."

Related stories from Rock Hill Herald