1. Archive

Convenience store owner slain in robbery

Chaiman Patel uprooted his family 15 years ago from India for a chance at a better life in America. His dreams ended abruptly Friday.

Patel, 53, and his wife Hansa, 54, were shot at 10:40 a.m. inside the Angel Food Store on U.S. 92 W, after giving a gunman money from their cash register.

"They complied with his demands, but he shot them anyway," Polk County sheriff's spokesman Aaron Flint said.

Chaiman Patel died at the store. Hansa Patel, who was shot several times, was taken to Lakeland Regional Medical Center. The hospital wouldn't give her condition Friday night, but Flint said her injuries aren't life-threatening.

Deputies were still searching for the gunman late Friday. He eluded 25 deputies, a bloodhound and two helicopters used to search the area behind the store.

As technicians and detectives took notes and photographs of the store, more than 30 friends and relatives of the victims gathered behind the yellow crime scene tape.

Roger Patel, 46, a relative who sold the couple the store about five years ago, described Chaiman Patel as a kind person who worked extremely hard.

He and his wife commuted from their Highland City home to the Auburndale store every day to run the business and support their two children, who attend Polk Community College and the University of Tampa, Roger Patel said.

"He wanted to do good for his family and that's why he came here," Roger Patel said. "He was working hard seven days a week."

Friends said Patel was a bank manager in the west Indian state of Gujarat before he left for the United States.

Flint said detectives will inspect a security camera in the store to see if it caught the gunman on tape.

The gunman was described as black, slender, in his 20s, wearing blue pants, a black shirt and a black do-rag on his head, Flint said.

Detectives were investigating whether a robbery on March 16 at the Express Food Shop at Thornhill Road and State Road 542 was related to Friday's robbery. The description of the suspect in the previous robbery was similar to that of the man who shot the Patels.

"Year after year, it seems like owners of Indian descent are robbed and shot," said Atul Patel, an engineer and a family friend. "Obviously this is a big concern for the community."

Bipin Patel, 40, who operates a BP Station in Winter Haven, said operating a convenience store in Polk County is dangerous business.

"The risk is there. We just pray to God for our life," he said. "We don't feel safe, especially in Polk County."

Bipin Patel said he has made up his mind to move out of the county.

At least five convenience store owners and workers in Polk have died during robberies since 1993. Two business people of Indian descent have been killed in the past two years.

On Oct. 18, 2000, Lakeland convenience store owner Varsha Patel was shot and killed at AKR Food Mart on Kathleen Road. Brandon Keith Gatlin, 22, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

On Sept. 17, Jayantilal Patel, the owner of the State Motel at 905 U.S. 27 N in Haines City, was shot to death in a motel room. Sean Robert Russell, 23, and Kimberley Williams, 20, have been charged in his death.

Friends and family said Chaiman Patel was aware of the danger of operating a convenience store. "He had no choice. He had to make a living," Atul Patel said. "He had a family to support."