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Merchant in anguish; customers back him in shooting

Originally ran here as:
"Merchant in anguish - Customers back him in shooting"
by Mark Holmberg, Staff Writer
Times Dispatch
January 12, 2002

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA -- A steady stream of customers filed into S&K Mini Mart on Forest Hill Avenue yesterday, but not all of them wanted to buy groceries.

"I've been feeling bad for John," said a neighborhood woman who came in just to give store owner John Lee a big hug.

Lee, a 52-year-old Korean native, tried to smile. He shook hands. He thanked those who came in. He asked about their children.

"I am very scared," he said.

Just four days earlier - Monday - two masked gunmen burst into his store, beat him and robbed him. Lee wound up shooting one of them to death.

Yesterday, his eyes welled up as he talked about it.

"I'm a Christian," he said in his accented English. "But I can't go to church any more. I've killed a person. I am very sorry."

"John, you did what you had to do," said customer and neighbor Steve Johnson, who was listening. "You had to protect yourself."

Johnson, president of the neighboring Woodland Heights Civic Association, could feel the weight of Lee's anguish. "I couldn't deal with it," Johnson said.

Support for Lee came from those young and old, black and white. A few complimented him on his shooting. Most just wanted to make sure he was OK.

"He's my buddy," said Linda Wright. "I'm sorry it had to happen. But it's one of those things that happen when people decide to break the law and do what they shouldn't be doing."

Wayne Harper, who has been at the S&K Mini Mart nearly every day since Lee opened it almost two years ago, had little sympathy for the man Lee killed, 26-year-old Kenny Carter. (The other alleged robber is in jail in Henrico on an unrelated charge. A Richmond police supervisor said that man will be charged with the robbery within the next day or two.)

"I think people are tired of going to work every day, five, six days a week, and then having somebody too lazy to work come up with a gun and try to take it [their money] from them," said Harper, a carpenter.

Harper said Lee is a kind man who helps his customers, sometimes letting them pay him later for goods if they're strapped for cash. "This shouldn't happen to people who try to help everybody."

It was 4:40 p.m. Monday when the two robbers burst into his store and immediately came around the counter, pushing Lee to the floor. One of them smashed his face with a pistol, police said. They kicked him, cursed him and demanded he open his cash register.

"I think they're killing me. I see everything," he recalled, waving his hands across his still- swollen face to express the idea that his life passed before his eyes. "All scenes of my family; father, my mother, my sons, my wife. All of them."

His hands were shaking so bad it took him a while to open the register for the robbers, he said. It was quickly emptied. Lottery scratch tickets were pulled off their rolls like toilet paper. Change scattered on the floor.

Lee said he was forced to unlock his storage room, then pushed into it. Several minutes went by. He heard what sounded like the robbers fleeing. "I think they're gone."

He waited another minute or two in the storeroom, so terrified his whole body shook.

He came out to dial 911 and grab his Colt .380 pistol. He saw what he thought were two customers looking out the front window. He called to them, they turned, and Lee said he nearly collapsed when he saw it was the masked robbers.

He opened fire.

"It was terrible," he said.

Lee has not been charged in the case.

The S&K building at 3406 Forest Hill Ave. has a checkered past. Previously, another owner operated it as the QW Minimart. Before then, it was a U-Tote-Em.

The address has been robbed at least 15 times during the past 14 years, newspaper records show.

And, in the years before Lee bought the building, neighbors alarmed about loitering, drunkenness and suspected drug dealing outside the store successfully fought to have the store's alcohol license suspended.

But the picture improved when Lee took over there, Johnson said. "John's a good neighbor. His is better than any store that's been here."

Monday was the second time Lee's market was robbed in four months. His wife runs their other convenience store on Maury Street. That one was robbed twice last year.

Lee said he didn't imagine it would be like this when he and his parents came to America in 1978 to find a better life. He said he cleaned warehouses, worked as a mechanic's helper and a welder to save money to open his first store in 1983.

Yesterday, as the sun went down, Lee was anxious to close early, as he has since the robbery. "I am very scared," he said. "I need to go home."

Contact Mark Holmberg at (804) 649-6822


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