A South Carolina gas station owner accused of fatally shooting a 14-year-old boy who he said stole from his store was charged with murder this week. The teen's killing has sparked protests and community outrage.
Cyrus Carmack-Belton did not steal from the Xpress Mart Shell in Columbia on Sunday night, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said, but 58-year-old Rick Chow and his son chased him out of the store, off the property and down the street before Chow shot him in the back as he was running away.
"It's senseless. It doesn't make sense. We have a family that's grieving, we have a community that's grieving over a 14-year-old that was shot," Lott said in a news conference.
Chow made his first appearance in court on Tuesday; a bond hearing will be scheduled later.
Officials: 14-year-old was shot in the back
Lott said at about 8 p.m. Sunday, Carmack-Belton, who was a Black middle school student, went into the convenience store and Chow suspected him of shoplifting. Lott said Carmack-Belton picked up four bottles of water from a cooler but had put them back.
"The video footage that we have seen shows him picking some items up, not stealing them, and then he politely and quickly put the items back where he found them," Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford said in a video she posted on Instagram.
After a "verbal confrontation," Lott said Carmack-Belton left the store and started running. Rutherford said there was no indication of a physical fight or altercation between Carmack-Belton and the store owners before the boy left the store. Chow, armed with a pistol, and his son chased Carmack-Belton and the boy fell down, then got back up.
"At some point, the son said that (the victim) had a gun," Lott said, adding that a gun was recovered close to Carmack-Belton's body. "At that point, the father shot the young man in the back."
Lott said the investigation showed Carmack-Belton did not point a gun at Chow before he was shot in the back.
"There’s no evidence showing that he was waving that gun around, there's no evidence showing he was brandishing it in any capacity," Rutherford said in an interview with USA TODAY.
Four bottles of water are "not something you shoot anybody over, much less a 14-year-old," Lott said.
Carmack-Belton was shot in the right lower back one time, Rutherford said, causing damage to his heart and hemorrhaging. She ruled his death a homicide.
"This was not an accidental shooting by any means," she said.
A bystander was doing compressions on Carmack-Belton when authorities arrived, according to a report provided to USA TODAY by the Richland County Sheriff's Office.
Store owner had history of prior confrontations with shoplifters, customers
Lott said Chow's store has seen several shoplifting incidents in the past, with reports of previous confrontations between the owner and customers. Richland County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Veronica Hill said the department has received hundreds of calls for service at the gas station over the past five years.
Chow was not charged with a crime in any of the other cases, Lott said, but Rutherford said police reports had been filed. Lott said Chow has a conceal-carry gun permit.
But two prior incidents involved Chow shooting at an individual, according to Hill. In both cases, police said Chow was either assaulted or threatened by people whom he eventually fired upon.
Hill said Chow fired at a shoplifter twice in 2018. The individual was treated at a local hospital after being struck in the leg and later pled guilty to charges related to the incident.
And in 2015, Chow fired about six shots at a vehicle in an attempt to stop an individual from stealing items, Hill said. No one was injured.
"Mr. Chow’s conduct in the above incidents did not meet the requirements under South Carolina law to support criminal charges," police said.
Chow has been charged with murder and is in custody at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, jail records show.
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Protests, vandalism at gas station
Since the shooting, community members have protested at the gas station where the incident began, officials said. Rutherford urged people to listen to the facts presented by the sheriff and coroner rather than incorrect narratives circulating on social media, including that the teen was kneeling on the ground or had his hands up when he was shot.
Rutherford told USA TODAY she went to the gas station and spoke with protesters, urging people not to add trauma to Carmack-Belton's grieving family by spreading false stories.
In the aftermath of the shooting, a peaceful demonstration on Monday evening ended when the gas station was broken into, Lott said. Glass windows were shattered and people were found in the store who ran out with merchandise. The outside of the gas station also was vandalized with spray paint, Lott said.
Photos provided by the sheriff's office show the inside of the store with shelves overturned and products strewn across the floor. Shattered glass and the name Cyrus in spray paint can be seen on the outside of the store in the photos. Signs placed on windows said, "#JusticeForCyrus" and "Rick murdered a child."
Rutherford and Lott both said protesters were welcome to peacefully voice their opinions, but Lott said stealing beer from the store had nothing to do with the child's death.
"Tearing up the store, tearing up the property, being violent in the protests is not going to help us get justice for Cyrus," Rutherford said in her Instagram video.
Rutherford said that as a mother and community member, she understands the heartbreak people are feeling about the death. She said she has a son the same age.
"We want justice for this young man," Rutherford said. "He could be any of our kids. He went into the store to get drinks."
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SC gas station owner charged in shooting death of Cyrus Carmack-Belton