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Community’s reaction mixed after 2 fatal shootings at convenience store

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com
ClerkFatalshooting_01
DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Lamia Hanna was forced to fatally shoot a would-be robber a few years ago at the Fast Mart convenience store. Another clerk at the store in the Hidden Valley neighborhood fatally shot a would-be robber last week.

Javon Booker made his intentions clear moments after walking into the northern Charlotte convenience store last month – scrambling over the counter of the Fast Mart with his gun raised, placing himself and two clerks in a confined space the size of a refrigerator.

Waving the gun, he yelled at a clerk named Eddie to empty the register.

“Eddie was like ‘calm down,’ ” said Silvia Penarrieta, the other clerk, who declined to give Eddie’s last name. “He hit Eddie in the head. At one point, Eddie had tripped … The robber was going to shoot Eddie. That’s when Eddie grabbed the gun.”

Eddie shot Booker, Penarrieta said. Fatally wounded, Booker, 21, staggered about a block before collapsing on Tom Hunter Road around 9 p.m. on Aug. 29.

It was the second time in six years that someone trying to rob the Fast Mart was killed by a person working there.

The shootings have sparked mixed reactions from the Hidden Valley community, where the store is located.

Patrons say the people who run the Fast Mart have a right to defend themselves. But several residents questioned whether the store attracts crime and violence. Some have said they want the store shut down.

The owners say the shootings were in self-defense at a store that has been robbed nine times in as many years.

“We’re not here to kill people. But when a person puts a gun in your face, then you have to defend yourself,” said Lamia Hanna, the owner, who fired a fatal shot at a would-be robber in 2007.

“I got tired of it,” she said. “People just wanting to take what you earn.”

Nine robberies

Lamia and her husband, Milad, moved to Charlotte from a suburb of Detroit 11 years ago. They bought the small store near Sugar Creek Road and Interstate 85 and renamed it Fast Mart.

At that point, Hidden Valley was ruled by a homegrown street gang called the Kings. The Kings sold crack-cocaine, and their drug dealing attracted violence.

Still, Fast Mart thrived. Those first few years, the Hannas worked seven days a week. Lamia Hanna opened the store each morning at 9. Her husband locked the doors at night.

The store’s location made it popular with people who lived in apartment complexes nearby. Many got to know the Hannas – and later, the clerks they hired – when they came in for a pack of cigarettes or a bag of chips.

Some will only buy lottery tickets from Lamia Hanna. Even the Kings were loyal customers who never bothered them, she said.

But the location also attracted robbers, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Lt. Ken Schul, who oversees the area.

“It’s near I-85 and you’ve got Hidden Valley on the other side,” he said. “It’s an easy get-in, get-out type of deal.”

The first robber struck about two years after Fast Mart opened. It was daytime, when 5-foot-2 Lamia Hanna was in the store alone. “I just gave him the cash and he left.”

The Hannas beefed up security. They lined the windows with metal bars, installed video cameras and gave police the authority to arrest anyone loitering after the store closed.

The robbers kept coming.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police say 14 robberies have been reported at Fast Mart since 2005. (Some happened in the street near the Fast Mart, but police are required to use the closest address when writing reports.)

Lamia Hanna says she saw one robber run into a nearby motel. Officers found him inside a room, cash from the registers still in his socks.

One time, the store was robbed by several youths. They jumped over the counter and put a gun in Lamia Hanna’s face. She recognized one of the teens. He’d been a customer.

“That’s when we decided we had to get a gun.”

On July 27, 2007, around 10 a.m., Lamia Hanna used the handgun for the first time.

“It was…10 in the morning,” she said. “The guy just walked in. He didn’t have anything over his face. No mask. No bandana.”

The robber, later identified as Stevan Lamar Sowell Jr., asked for the money and she gave it to him.

“Then he says, ‘You know what, because you know my face, I’m going to shoot you,’ ” Lamia Hanna said.

She’s still not sure why he didn’t. But when his attention was diverted, she grabbed the hidden gun, aimed and pulled the trigger.

“He died right here at the door.”

‘Just close the thing’

Hidden Valley’s neighborhood association held its monthly meeting shortly after Booker was killed. Several people who attended said the store and a nearby bus stop are magnets for crime, said Gary Dawkins, the president of the community association.

“Several (residents) have said they should just close the thing,” Dawkins said. “They were talking about the killings that occurred in the building as well as the type of food and stuff that’s served. The majority of the items that are sold there are not staple goods – they’re alcoholic beverages.”

Dawkins said he’s not sure what the neighborhood should do, if anything.

He plans to talk to the owners of the Fast Mart this week. He also plans to request statistics from police officers about crime at and around the Fast Mart.

Asha Wilkes, who’s lived in Hidden Valley for three years, supported the store and had no sympathy for the robbers.

“He robbed y’all,” she said. “I’m sure everybody around here would sign a petition if it came to that.”

In the first fatal shooting, Lamia Hanna was never charged. The second remains under investigation, but Eddie hasn’t been arrested, nor has he been charged with a crime.

Generally, the police department recommends that store owners and clerks cooperate with robbers, Schul said. A robber is more likely to fire at someone who’s pointing a gun at him. And some robbers have taken their victims’ guns away.

Still “the store owners and clerks, they’re allowed to defend themselves,” Schul said.

Lamia Hanna said she was upset that people in the neighborhood want her store to close.

But on a morning last week, she had bigger problems to contend with.

A man was on the phone from a security company.

He was telling her how much it would cost to enclose the area behind the counter in bulletproof glass.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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