Arsonist’s threat to ‘torture’ immigrants a hate crime, say Charlotte police

Indian grocery store a hate crime target

Police say a fire set at the Central Market was a hate crime.
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Police say a fire set at the Central Market was a hate crime.

An attempt to burn an east Charlotte store that included a note warning of plans to “torture” immigrants is being investigated as a hate crime by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.

Police say officers were called at 9:59 p.m. Thursday to a fire at the Central Market, a Nepali Indian store at 5718 Albemarle Road in Charlotte. On arrival, officers were advised by the Charlotte Fire Department that the fire was contained to the front door and burned itself out by their arrival.

Investigators say one of the windows in the door had been broken out with a rock and a note was left near the door. The note stated “the suspect did not want any refugee business owners and that they would torture the owner if they did not leave and go back to where they came from,” according to police.

It was signed “White America.”

“We need more safety and more security as business owners,” Kamal Dhimel, owner of Central Market, said.

Dhimel is a Bhutan refugee, who fled to Nepal in the early 1990s. He moved to the United States in 2010, and started his business in 2014. He said he has never encountered anti-immigrant sentiments while in the United States, though he said the letter is a sign that people don’t understand the importance of immigrants and refugees in the community.

“If they want to know about refugees and immigrants and our backgrounds, they need to come to us and listen to us,” he said. “We can explain to them how we help this country, how we give back to this country.”

City Council member Dimple Ajmera, who represents that part of Charlotte and knows Dhimel, said she was frustrated to see the hate crime take place.

“It’s really unfortunate that this has happened in my district and this has happened in our city,” Ajmera said. “But under my watch, I’ll continue to work around the clock to make sure that all businesses and all the residences feel safe. Safe to do business here, and feel safe to live here and work here.”

There were no injuries in the fire, officials said.

Investigators say video surveillance of the incident showed a black male suspect, about 5-feet, 8-inches tall, 200 pounds. He had a short afro and a goatee, and was wearing a gray hoodie under a black coat, light jeans and black shoes, police said.

Central Market is a Nepali Indian store that sells fast food, groceries and gifts, mostly from the Indian subcontinent (Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Bhutan). People from India make up Charlotte’s second largest concentration of immigrants (just below Hispanics) with 12,300 people. The number jumps to over 14,000 when including immigrants form neighboring nations.

A large number of the H-1B Visa workers employed by Charlotte’s banks and other corporations are also highly skilled people from India.

The arson case comes at a time when the nation’s population of people from the Indian subcontinent are on alert, after a several high profile killings, including one in Lancaster County last month. The victim in that attack, Harnish Patel, 43, was the owner of a convenience store in Lancaster County. He was found dead of gunshot wounds in the yard of his home on March 2.

The Times of India covered Patel’s killing and noted it happened just days after an Indian engineer was killed in Kansas by a man who allegedly yelled “get out of my country” before shooting Srinivas Kunchubhotla, age 32. Two others were injured in that attack.

Here in Charlotte, a woman from Pakistan reported in mid March that a man pulled a gun on her as she sat breast feeding her baby in a parked car in the University City area. The woman, who is a married mother of four, said she clutched her baby and fled through the parking lot to an Indian store for help, and the man sped off. The incident was called “ethnic intimidation” by the Council on American-Islamic Relations based in Washington, D.C.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a statement Friday condemning the crime on Dhimel’s store.

“We condemn this disturbing attack and urge state and national political leaders to view it in the context of the unprecedented spike in hate incidents nationwide targeting immigrants, South Asians, Muslims, and members of other minority groups,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR said in the statement.

Charlotte police are asking anyone with additional information concerning this case or the suspect to call Crime Stoppers at 704-334-1600. To learn more about the Crime Stoppers mobile app, please visit http://charlottecrimestoppers.com/. For additional information about this incident please refer to CMPD report number 20170406-2159-07.

This is an ongoing, active investigation by both the police and the Charlotte Fire Investigation Task Force