South Carolina gas station owner killed a 14-year-old boy he wrongly accused of shoplifting, police say

May 31, 2023
A man walks in front of police tape placed in front of a convenience store, Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. Richland County deputies said the store owner chased a 14-year-old he thought shoplifted, but didn't steal anything and fatally shot the teen in the back. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina gas station owner accused of chasing a 14-year-old boy from his store and fatally shooting him in the back made his first court appearance Tuesday on a murder charge in the death.

Rick Chow thought the boy had shoplifted four bottles of water Sunday night from his Xpress Mart Shell station in Columbia, authorities said. But Cyrus Carmack-Belton put the bottles back in the cooler and was off the store’s property and running away when he was killed, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.

A gun was found near the teen’s body and Chow’s son, who also was involved in the chase, told his father that Carmack-Belton was armed after the youth fell as he ran, according to the sheriff. But Lott said there was no evidence the boy ever pointed the weapon at Chow or his son.

Chow, who had a concealed weapons permit, was charged after an autopsy showed the middle school student was shot in the back and deputies spoke to witnesses and reviewed surveillance and other video, Lott said.

Self-defence law in South Carolina requires the shooter doesn’t instigate the incident, believes he is in imminent danger and has no way to avoid that danger.

“You don’t shoot somebody in the back that is not a threat to you,” the sheriff said. “Same standard the cops live by.”

Chow, 58, is being held in the Richland County jail. Neither he nor his lawyer talked about the shooting during the initial court appearance or in response to messages from The Associated Press. A bond hearing will be held later.

Richland County Coroner Nadia Rutherford said there was no sign that Carmack-Belton was fighting with Chow before he ran out of the store and added there was no injury to his body other than an abrasion from falling and the gunshot wound.

Both the sheriff and coroner asked for calm from the community. Social media posts incorrectly said the teen was kneeling or had his hands up when he was shot. Jail and coroner records have not listed the races of the shooter or the teen.

Rutherford told a crowd at the gas station on Monday that the teen was shot while he was running and the bullet went through his back and into his heart. She told the crowd, which was yelling calls for justice, to listen to the facts.

“I was at the autopsy I looked at his body inside and outside. He had one shot to the back which is why Mr. Chow is being charged with murder,” the coroner told the crowd.

Deputies have been called to Chow’s store numerous times in the last several years for shoplifting complaints and sometimes they turned into shoving or scuffling, but Lott said his officers determined Chow was defending himself and he was never charged.

Sunday’s shooting was not justified, the sheriff said.

“Even if he had shoplifted four bottles of water, which he had taken out of the cooler and then put back — even if he had done that,’s not something you should shoot anybody over, much less a 14-year-old,” Lott said.

After Monday’s peaceful protest, Chow’s store was broken into after dark with shattered windows and merchandise pulled off shelves and strewn across the floor, Lott said. When deputies arrived, a large group was inside stealing items, the sheriff said, adding he plans to charge those involved.

“What does stealing a case of beer have to do with a 14-year-old being shot?” Lott said, calling the theft looting.

Deputies are now watching over the property, the sheriff said.

“The taxpayers are paying for us to guard that store because a limited number of individuals who want to do something like that instead of going out there in memory of this 14-year-old boy,” Lott said.

The entire gas station was behind yellow crime scene tape Tuesday morning. Dozens of crushed water bottles littered the parking lot. Graffiti, most of it “Cyrus” or “14” covered the walls.

A sign taped to the door read “Water or Life? Which means more?” Another read “Close it down!”

Occasionally, a car would park for its occupants to take photos, or someone would walk down the sidewalk taking cellphone video.

The day before, the coroner stood near the gas pumps, asking the dozens gathered there to not turn to violence to help the grief of the family of Carmack-Belton, who was a student at a nearby middle school.

“Please be peaceful,” Rutherford said. “This family does not need any more trauma related to his death.”

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