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Uneasy silence: Who killed Rahul Patel?

The gunshots that took the life of Pankaj Patel’s husband, Rahul, also destroyed the atmosphere of trust at PK Foods in Trilacoochee. Now bulletproof glass separates her from her customers, and signs detail other changes.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

The gunshots that took the life of Pankaj Patel’s husband, Rahul, also destroyed the atmosphere of trust at PK Foods in Trilacoochee. Now bulletproof glass separates her from her customers, and signs detail other changes.

TRILACOOCHEE — He had been robbed four times already. Once, some teenagers tied him up, taped his eyes shut and threw him in the cooler. Still the immigrant from India felt safe at PK's Food Store, the first convenience store he actually owned.

Unlike the other stores, nothing bad had happened here. He knew all the customers by name, knew them so well he often had their favorite snack or beverage ready when they walked in.

And once people came inside, no barrier separated them from Rahul Patel. People were even allowed to go behind the counter and pick out their own smokes. The security cameras had no film.

That's what makes it so difficult for sheriff's deputies to hunt down whoever gunned down Patel, cleaned out his cash register and left him to die that night in 2006, three days before Christmas.

The killing stunned community members, who said Patel had no known enemies. He often granted credit to customers who were short on cash, telling them, "You can see me next time."

"It hurts me to go there now," said George Baker, who was buying a sandwich at the Farm Basket farther south on U.S. 301. The car detailer, who sports a heavy gold crucifix around his neck and a tattoo on his right arm that says "God Forgives," said Patel would often come and offer him a cold drink on hot days. "I went to that store just for him."

Baker said he's heard that the killer is some "young kid" who may already be in jail for another crime.

"But those are just rumors."

Baker said it's a shame that the one person who could have probably sniffed out Patel's killer, Pasco sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, was murdered by a local teenager in the same community three years earlier.

Harrison, a hometown coach and church leader, was an icon of virtue in this impoverished community.

"(Patel) was the same kind of guy," Baker said.

• • •

Detectives say leads have dwindled as time has passed.

"Leads do trickle in, but we'd like to give more action on it," said Sgt. Eric Seltzer, who has assigned one of his most experienced detectives, Jennifer Christensen, to the case.

She thinks the case is solvable.

"There's somebody out there who knows something," she said.

Much of what authorities know was gleaned from a clerk named Tom who was working with Patel that night.

Tom, who spoke to the St. Petersburg Times after the killing but didn't give his last name for fear of retribution, said he was stocking the Pepsi cooler at the back of the store when he heard two gunshots.

He looked up and saw a man with dreadlocks. He hid behind a beer display until the man left. He found his 55-year-old boss lying near the cigarettes, shot near the heart, and gasping for air.

"He didn't get a good visual on the guy," Christensen said.

Detectives were looking for a black man, 20 to 30 years old, with bushy dreadlocks, who may have been driving a red older-model full-size car, possibly a Lincoln, with tinted windows.

They suspect the robber is local or at least from nearby. The store is tucked behind the intersection of U.S. 301 and Trilby Road. It boasts none of the big lighted signs of the corporate chains.

"The person who did it had to know something about that area," Seltzer said.

They urged anyone with information to call the Sheriff's Office tip line. Callers can remain anonymous. Often what seems like a minor detail turns out to crack a case.

"Before you know it, it takes on a life of its own," Seltzer said.

• • •

PK's Food Store remains open. The Patel family runs it, but it's a far different place than it was in 2006.

Two signs on the front door bluntly state "No credit" and "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone." Bulletproof glass separates the cashier from the public. Customers pay by sliding cash through a slot. Behind the window, a framed portrait of Patel sits on the counter. It is draped with a garland of silk flowers in Hindu tradition. Next to it is a television. On its screen is footage taken from the security cameras.

Patel's widow, Pankaj, spends much of her time minding the store.

Her jewelry — gold bracelets, rings, a pendant of the Hindu god Krishna — all were gifts from her husband.

"He always wanted my mom to be happy," said their 28-year-old son, Ujjawal. His parents' marriage was a traditional one arranged by their families. Patel began work as a rickshaw driver in India then worked at a family trucking business. He and his wife immigrated to Hawaii in 1989. He worked at a Burger King; she worked at a McDonald's. They later moved to Fort Pierce, where Patel worked in stores and was robbed several times.

In 1995, he bought PK's. The family also bought a home in the nearby Hernando County community of Ridge Manor. Family members say he worked 365 days a year.

"The store was like his second home," said his 25-year-old daughter, Payal.

He got up around 5:45 each morning, prayed and made tea before heading to work. On Sundays he would take his family to an Indian restaurant in Tampa, where he enjoyed the buttered chicken. He also had a taste for Taco Bell.

In January 2006, he finally took a vacation when the family went to India for Ujjawal's wedding. Patel danced.

"He wasn't working," Payal said. "He was just being a dad."

Ujjawal said shortly after the killing, some people called asking whether there was a reward for information. When he said no, they hung up.

Ujjawal considers it crass for someone to talk only for money.

"It's not right to me," he said. "It has to come from inside them."

For now, he prays that his father's killer will be caught.

"I hope the law and God takes care of him," he said.

Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.

>>Fast facts

Look familiar?

Anyone who has information on the shooting death of Rahul Patel is asked to call Pasco sheriff's detective Jennifer Christensen toll-free at 1-800-706-2862, ext. 5019, or the Sheriff's Office toll-free tip line at 1-800-706-2488. Tipsters may remain anonymous.

Uneasy silence: Who killed Rahul Patel? 07/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 6:28pm]
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