Community mourns teenager's death after gas station owner charged with murder
Elected officials met a South Carolina community mourning the death of a 14-year-old boy who authorities say was fatally shot in the back by a gas station owner with calls to channel their righteous anger into collective support and political action.
Over 60 people gathered Friday evening for a prayer vigil across the street from the Xpress Mart Shell station in Columbia less than one week after authorities say owner Rick Chow killed Cyrus Carmack-Belton after chasing down the Black teenager, whom he wrongly suspected of stealing four water bottles.
"I am angry," Richland County Councilwoman Yvonne McBride said. "I'm angry about what happened. I'm angry because a young innocent baby was taken brutally from us."
Chow, 58, was charged with murder after an autopsy showed that Carmack-Belton was shot in the back when off the store's property running away, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. While Chow thought the youth had shoplifted, investigators said store videos showed Carmack-Belton returned the four water bottles to the cooler. Chow's son told his father that the teen was armed, according to Lott, but there is no evidence that the gun found near Carmack-Belton's body was ever directed at them.
Authorities said Chow, who has a concealed weapon's permit, had previously fired at people he suspected of shoplifting on two other occasions in the past eight years and never faced charges.
Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford stressed to vigil attendees that Carmack-Belton did not have the gun out.
"There was a young boy killed right across the street, and he didn't deserve to die," Rutherford said.
She also urged peace at the Friday evening service capping a week that has seen nonviolent protests and vandalism outside the store, and coming one day before Carmack-Belton will be laid to rest at a funeral.
Leaders endorsed a swift justice process and the minimization of the easy flow of firearms in society. McBride reiterated her opposition to recently approved tax breaks for a gun manufacturer's expansion in a county where the sheriff has warned in recent years of a gun violence crisis.
State Rep. Leon Howard said that both Chow and his son, who officials say participated in the chase, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Howard also asked that constituents push state senators to pass a hate crimes bill. South Carolina is one of two states without a law enhancing the punishment for crimes determined to be motivated by hatred over the victim's race, among other parts of their identity.
The proposal cleared the South Carolina House only to stop in the Senate again this session. The fatal Sunday night shooting provides additional impetus to make it law, Howard said.
"It was just hate," Howard told The Associated Press. "What else would cause him to evoke such violence to a young teenager, shoot him in the back, other than just pure hate?"
An impromptu memorial arose, with a growing number of balloons and flowers, in a grassy patch where Carmack-Belton had been slain. One sign read "He Was Just A KID!" while another shirt had the words "CYRUS SHOULD BE HERE."
In a Facebook post, Carmack-Belton's middle school remembered him as an intelligent and quick-witted student with an "infectious smile" who dreamed of owning a tattoo shop.
Counselors and spiritual leaders reminded vigil attendees to seek help processing the range of emotional responses that such an event brings. Lashonda McFadden, a member of the local school district's board of trustees, asked the community to support young students who had to see that "somebody that looks like me passed away."
"It's a normal, human reaction to be shocked and outraged and angry and frustrated that a senseless murder happened, essentially. This child was killed and shot down," said Reese Palmer, a counselor who hosted the vigil, told the AP. "We need to be able to have a safe space to process all the emotions."
Residents of Richland County, where nearly half the population is Black, have been mourning a loss that state Rep. Todd Rutherford, the family's attorney, said earlier this week was no accident. He said the experience of "being racially profiled, then shot down in the street like a dog" is one that the Black community has known for generations.
"One beacon of hope is seeing the resilience of the Black community as they wrap their arms around this family that has joined the club that no Black family ever wants to be a part of," he said in a statement Wednesday.
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.