It was pouring rain just after 1 p.m. Monday, July 20, when a man burst into a Honduran grocery store on NW 36th Street in Miami. A shirt was wrapped around his face as he gripped a black semiautomatic handgun. Twenty-year-old Charles Bell shoved the pistol into the face of a manager behind the counter. Then he demanded the contents of the cash register and cartons of cigarettes in a plastic bag.
Next he began herding customers to the back of the small market.
But when he returned to the counter to collect his loot, a short, well-built 24-year-old manager named Valentin Fiallos pointed a .38 and squeezed the trigger. As Bell scampered from the store, he turned and shot back several times. Fiallos, shielding himself, squeezed off several more rounds.
vigilante store clerks
The would-be robber missed every time, but the manager's aim was true. Bell burst out of the store and ran several steps before flopping onto the wet asphalt. A bullet to the chest killed him.
Cops termed it "justifiable homicide." The ruling is backed up by former Gov. Jeb Bush's 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law, which offers wide-ranging legal protection to violent-crime victims who open fire on their aggressors before trying to make peace.
All over South Florida, besieged employees are shooting back. A few blood-soaked examples:
• On August 12, 2007, a 54-year-old Pembroke Pines Super Stop clerk pulled a handgun on a shotgun-wielding pair of robbers, killing one.
• A month later, a clerk at OG's Corner Urban Wear in Oakland Park shot and whacked a 17-year-old robber.
• Two months after that, the manager of a Naranja grocery store killed a 14-year-old ski-masked robber strapped with what turned out to be a BB gun.
• In August last year, a Miami Gardens videogame store manager was murdered in a shootout after he nailed one of three armed robbers.
• And here's a departure from the model. At a Biscayne Boulevard Burger King this past March, a customer with a permitted Glock ended the life of an armed robber in a firefight. The vigilante sustained hits from several bullets and is currently wrapping up physical therapy.
Then there was last month's case of Fiallos killing Bell, which inspired a New Times road trip to find out more about clerks who shoot back. They never know who might walk in when that little bell on the door rings.
First stop was the Pembroke Pines Stop-N-Go, where in December 2008, gas station manager Shedahe Abdel pulled a .45 from a side holster and wounded two armed gunmen.
The burly 43-year-old Venezuelan immigrant keeps a clean shop and treats everybody, including shoplifters he catches on camera, with courtesy. But in the nine years he has managed Stop-N-Go stores, Abdel says, he has been targeted by armed robbers three times. The first two times, he cleaned out the cash register with no hesitation, but his wife and daughter were working in the store with him the second time. "I saw them lying on the floor crying," he recalls, "and I realized I had to buy the gun."
So Abdel purchased a .45 Kimber for $1,100, took gun-handling classes, and read up on self-defense laws. "My boss said, 'Why do you want to make a problem?' But I told him: 'I have to protect myself and my family.'"
The small black handgun remains holstered under his T-shirt, with the safety off. When robbers stormed his gas station that Monday in December, he didn't plan on drawing the weapon until they demanded cash from a safe that doesn't exist.
He feared they might shoot a customer or his cowering wife and daughter. So he dodged the gunman's aim, plugged him in the arm, and then turned to fire a shot into the accomplice's leg.
As one of the wounded gunmen dashed from the store, Abdel tended to the accomplice, 20-year-old Joshua Hammond, who was writhing on the ground with a leg wound. "He told me: 'Call my daddy,'" recalls the manager. "The moment happens so fast, and you're so scared. Afterwards, you try to remember, If you didn't shoot him first... But then it's just, Oh, man, why did I do that?"
Abdel pulls out a surprising document — a missive of gratitude from Hammond's grandmother, handwritten on yellow lined paper and dated December 30, 2008, the day after the shooting. "I am sending you this letter because I want to apologize for the actions my grandson Joshua Hammond took toward you and your customers," wrote Shirley Riettie. "I am very grateful that you didn't take his life. I know it would have been justified."
Next is a Quik Stop on NE Second Avenue at 29th Street in Miami. It's home to a check-cashing counter, so the place is usually bustling. Manning the counter is Wilfredo Linares, an animated co-owner with gel-plastered hair, a sinewy frame, and an undying affection for the large black Glock tucked under the register.
In late 2007, he says, a beefy 44-year-old man named Anthony Tice cashed a $435 paycheck — and must have watched Linares pull big bills from one of two Dutch Master boxes under the counter. Twenty minutes later, Tice returned with a shirt over his face and a gun in his hand. Tice put the black metal snout to Linares's temple and demanded both cigar boxes, says the co-owner. Then he made off with around $7,000.The store owner gave Tice's photo and driver's license information, all stored in his computer webcam, to police.
Two weeks later, though, Tice was still a free man. He came back — to cash another check. Linares's stepbrother, who was behind the counter, whipped out the Glock to keep Tice in the store while Linares called the cops. Tice, already a multiple felon with grand theft auto and cocaine possession convictions on his record, wasn't packing. He stuck around until police carted him off. Trial for the robbery is scheduled later this month.
Linares has little faith in the law. "This is our police!" he declares, pointing at his handgun. "This is our state attorney!"
Later, outside a Texaco on a barren stretch of NE 103rd Street, a hand-scrawled sign reads, "Those who come into the store with bad intentions, think twice to avoid problems." The mini-mart's walls are adorned with closed-circuit still photos of shoplifters caught red-handed. One image appears to show a manager holding a handgun to a thief's head. Asked about guns, the clerk doesn't respond. He just taps a bulge under his T-shirt, grins widely, and then goes back to organizing cartons of Newports.
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Then it's on to Ahmed Alamimi's convenience store, located in what he calls the "Triangle of Death" — a nine-block Opa-locka tract bordered on every side by metal barriers designed to prevent drive-by shootings. The manager "considered" a gun but decided it invites trouble. "You don't treat the residents with respect, and they'll rob you every week," he says before adding that there hasn't been a stickup in at least two years. "Act courteously and kindly, and [your neighbors] will look out for you."
Finally, it's over to the Honduran grocery on 36th Street, where Valentin Fiallos ended a robber's life July 20. His father, Miguel, now watches the store while the young man cools off in Honduras. "He's just a boy," Dad says. "He would have never thought he'd have to take a life."
But the Fialloses certainly aren't paralyzed by regret. The day after the shooting, Miguel plunked down $647 at the Miami Police Supply gun shop. He wanted a new .38 for the store while cops hold the old weapon as evidence.