Crime & Courts

Police: Store clerks have right to defend themselves

When a would-be robber was shot to death in a North Broadway convenience store on Thanksgiving night, it was at least the sixth time since 1985 that would-be robbers have been killed by store clerks or store owners in Wichita.

Four of the six shootings have occurred at businesses on North Broadway, three at the same liquor store.

Prosecutors have ruled that the five earlier shootings were ruled justifiable, and they said an initial review of the Thanksgiving night shooting does not indicate that there was any criminal wrongdoing by the clerk.

Capt. Brent Allred said store owners and clerks are generally encouraged to comply with the demands of an armed robber.

“But legally they’ve got every right to carry a firearm in their store and use it to defend themselves,” he said.

Prosecutors said state law affords no special rights to business owners who use deadly force, and they say there can be consequences for doing so. In Nebraska, a clerk at an Omaha Kwik Shop went to prison after shooting a shoplifter in the back while trying to make a citizen’s arrest.

The latest Wichita shooting occurred at about 7:30 p.m. Nov. 22 at the KC Gas & Groceries, 1161 N. Broadway, when two would-be robbers walked into the store with pellet guns. An accomplice waited outside.

One of the robbers went under the counter, pushed the clerk and began to take money from the register, police said. During a subsequent scuffle, police said, the clerk pulled a gun from behind the counter and fired at least one shot that hit one of the robbers.

Giorgio J. Rock, 16, collapsed at the door and was pronounced dead at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis. Police said Rock was one of two robbers who struck the same convenience store the previous week.

Two accomplices – Nigel Finlinson and Christopher Rollins, both 19 – were charged last week with aggravated robbery and are being held in the Sedgwick County Jail on $250,000 bond. Although felony murder charges can sometimes be filed against all participants in a crime that turns deadly, a 2001 Kansas Supreme Court ruling said the felony murder law cannot be applied in cases where one of the criminals is killed by the lawful use of deadly force.

The station was closed last week, and the owner, who police said was out of the country when the shooting occurred, could not be reached for comment. The name of the clerk has not been released.

Allred said police advise store owners to avoid confrontation if possible during an armed robbery.

“Typically you want to comply with what they want,” he said. “Stay calm. Get a good description of the person and the vehicle they’re driving. We always say that if you can be a good witness, that’s the best thing you can do.

“If they want money, give them the money. Money is not worth getting hurt over.”

Police records show there were 16 crimes reported at KC Gas & Groceries from 2009 through 2011, including five assaults, three thefts, two drug violations and one robbery. By comparison, the records show, two hotels on the same block accounted for 148 crimes from 2009 through 2011, including 55 assaults and 38 drug violations.

Allred said robberies citywide are down slightly this year, and he said the area of North Broadway where the shooting occurred has not seen a surge of violence this year.

“I think it’s like any other area of Wichita,” he said. “Where you have a lot of people, anything’s possible.”

A clerk’s perspective

Thanh Nguyen, whose family owns and operates the DC convenience store at 2160 S. Broadway, said he heard about the KC Gas shooting on Twitter. He said he was happy to hear that a clerk had shot a robber instead of the other way around.

Nguyen said his family business was robbed three times before he and his brothers started openly carrying firearms at work about five years ago. Last week, as a steady stream of customers stopped for gas, cigarettes or Powerball tickets, most didn’t notice the Kahr PM45 holstered at his side.

“It’s little, but it packs a punch,” he said.

He said he thinks most of his regular customers are aware that he and his brothers often carry firearms. He said he thinks would-be robbers know, too.

“I think it’s a huge deterrent,” he said.

Nguyen said his family deals with shoplifters once or twice a week, but he said he’s never had to pull his gun on a customer. He said he hopes he never has to. But if he ever is confronted by a gun-toting robber, he said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot.”

Nguyen, who has a permit to carry a concealed firearm, said he knows of only a few businesses in Wichita where workers openly carry firearms. But he said there are probably guns behind a lot of store counters.

“I haven’t really gone out asking everyone, but I would guess most of them have them,” he said.

The store shootings

Kansas law says a person is justified in the use of deadly force “if such person reasonably believes deadly force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to such person or a third person.”

Deputy District Attorney Kim Parker said the law does not differentiate between homes, businesses and other locations.

“In general all citizens are entitled to use deadly force to the extent that it’s necessary,” she said.

The shooting that sent the Omaha clerk to prison occurred on Dec. 16, 1995. Newspaper accounts at the time showed that the shooting occurred after clerk David Johnson picked up a .38-caliber revolver that was registered to the store’s owner and went outside in pursuit of two unarmed males who had stolen four 12-packs of beer. Johnson testified at his second-degree murder trial that he was scared and trying to make a citizen’s arrest when he shot a 15-year-old in the back, killing him. The other shoplifter, who was 23, was struck in the leg and right elbow. Johnson, who was convicted of manslaughter, was sentenced to nine to 15 years in prison.

The Wichita cases all involved shootings that occurred during the course of a robbery:

• May 17, 1986: A man entered the Lundstedt Liquor Store, 1460 N. Broadway, about 8:50 p.m., picked up a bottle of vodka, pulled a knife and came around the counter where two clerks were standing. As the robber was taking money from the drawer, one of the workers backed through a door into another room, grabbed a shotgun and returned. He ordered the man to stop taking the money and told him to leave. The man began to run around the counter, still clutching the money. The clerk fired, striking the man in the upper right chest. The robber, Andrew Scott Rice, 24, had been released from a state penal institution eight days earlier.

• March 24, 1993: Two men approached a walk-up window at the University Mini-Mart Pizza Palace at 21st and Erie about 6:40 p.m., and one asked for three packs of cigarettes. When the clerk turned to hand him the cigarettes, the customer was pointing a handgun at him. The clerk grabbed his own gun and the robber fired five times, never striking his victim. The clerk shot twice, wounding the robber, who limped about a half-block before collapsing. The robber was later identified as Eddie A. Vernon, 19.

• July 28, 1993: Three men walked into Lundstedt Liquor about 3 p.m., and one began struggling with a female clerk after being denied use of a bathroom. The woman broke free, grabbed a handgun and shot the man in the back after he grabbed the cash register and approached the door. A second man was shot with a shotgun after being confronted by a male employee in the parking lot. Police said the third man knew nothing about the robbery until he saw the scuffle in the store. The dead men were identified as Bryan O’Bryant, 25, and Gerald Beach, 25, and police said the two apparently met in prison.

• Aug. 25, 2007: A man with a bandage wrapped around his head that left one eye exposed walked into Salyer Pharmacy at 102 E. 21st St. at 10:45 a.m. on a Saturday, pointed a gun at two pharmacists and demanded Lortabs and other narcotics. One of the pharmacists grabbed a pistol-grip shotgun and told the robber, “Put the gun down. Drop it." When the robber swung his gun toward the other pharmacist, the first pharmacist fired. The robber was later identified as Alexander R. Mies, 27, who relatives said had become addicted to pain medications after several surgeries resulting from sports injuries. Police said his gun was not loaded.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle