Slain grocer was nice to customers, weary of crime

October 17, 1992|By Michael James and James Bock | Michael James and James Bock,Staff Writers

Sung Gu Shin's tiny corner store in East Baltimore was closed yesterday, the metal bars on its windows and door making it look like a cage.

"All the kids came here. These people were really nice," said Tasha Henderson, who walked by the Best Food Mart holding her 2-year-old daughter, Yazzie. "They had the coldest Pepsis in town."

On Wednesday night, a gunman shot Mr. Shin in the head at point-blank range in front of the merchant's wife and 7-year-old son. Mr. Shin, 43, a Korean immigrant who worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week at the store, died the next day. Police suspect robbery was the motive.

"Everything's so out of control here. It seems so nasty, so mean. Couldn't they have just taken the money?" Ms. Henderson said.

For 15 years the little store at North Washington Street and North Avenue has been run by grocers of Korean descent, including Mr. Shin and two other owners. During that time, the store has been a target for the escalating violence in the neighborhood.

"I've always felt so sorry for them because they would get robbed," said Bernadine Dean, a middle-age woman who has lived next door to the store for 32 years. "One day, I gave Mrs. Shin tomatoes from my garden. She thought it was so nice, she appreciated getting something."

Mr. Shin had been robbed twice this summer and numerous times in the eight years he'd been the owner, police said.

For Korean merchants, the threat of crime is nothing new. Armed robberies are one of Baltimore's biggest crime problems and the poor districts where Korean merchants usually start businesses are particularly hard-hit.

The Korean Businessmen's League of Greater Baltimore estimates that about 20 Korean merchants have been slain in their businesses since the 1970s.

Mr. Shin immigrated to the United States 15 years ago from Taegu, South Korea's third-largest city. His mother and father worked with him at the Best Food Mart.

The store's crime troubles date to at least 1979, when an armed robber shot a Korean female cashier in the face, said Jung Hong, a friend of Mr. Shin's who used to run the store and is now the landlord for the property.

The woman in the 1979 incident survived and moved out of Baltimore, said Mr. Hong.

"I don't know what Mrs. Shin is going to do with the shop," Mr. Hong said. "I feel very bad, because he [Mr. Shin] said the grocery was becoming too hard a job. He was going to go into some other business. He was scared because there were too many robberies."

The gunman and his accomplice were still being sought last night. Police initially questioned two suspects but later released them.

Detectives say Mr. Shin did not resist the gunman and didn't do anything to provoke him to shoot. Friends of Mr. Shin said his policy was not to argue with armed men.

"It's really macabre why anyone would want to shoot him," said homicide Detective Barry Grant, one of the case investigators. "If there was a typical Korean grocer, he would be it: Very hard-working, dedicated to family, very conscientious."

Detective Grant, a former robbery detective, had known Mr. Shin from investigating robberies at the store. Mr. Shin had no criminal record, nor even a driving citation, Detective Grant said.

Mr. Shin's family have an apartment over the business as well as a home in Ellicott City. Family members speak little English. Police were using a translator to interview them for a description of the two men being sought.

A tentative description released by police is that the men are white, both about 5 feet 8 inches tall with dark brown or black hair. But the description is sketchy, stressed Detective Grant, who said the victim's family "is still in an unbelievable state of shock" and can't give a detailed account of the crime.

When he first arrived in the U.S., Mr. Shin worked as a mechanic at a BMW dealership, where "he worked hard, but he didn't make too much money," said another friend, Kyung Chae. "About six years ago, he purchased the grocery store."

Mr. Shin had recently said he was interested in getting out of the grocery business because it was too dangerous, Mr. Chae said.

"My brother met him two weeks ago, and he said he was tired of the store, too much trouble, too many hours. He was sick of the store," Mr. Chae said. "He wanted to sell the store and move to a quieter area."

Mr. Shin played soccer sometimes at Patterson and Herring Run parks, Mr. Chae said.

He was also a member of a "kae," a group of about 15 Korean men in their 40s each of whom puts $50 a month into a loan pool to help one another, Mr. Chae said. The kae was called the Kum Nan, which roughly translates to "Golden Flowers," he said.

Once a year the Kum Nan kae would hold a picnic, which Mr. Shin would usually attend.

Mr. Chae said the group will pay all funeral expenses and put up a reward.

Peter Shin, who is no relation to the victim but who is vice-president of the Korean Businessmen's League, called Mr. Shin a very hard worker and a good family man.

When he heard about the shooting Wednesday night, Peter Shin said, "I lost my spirits. I thought, 'It's happened again. Why only the Koreans?' "

"We don't understand why this country has so many guns. Why? That's one of the biggest problems," Peter Shin said. "How come the government does not control the sale of guns?"

Mr. Hong, the victim's friend and landlord, is also an elder at the Bethel Korean Church of Baltimore. He said Sung Shin was religious and was friends with many people in the church, but would never go to Sunday services.

"He always worked on Sunday. He would not take a day off," Mr. Hong said.

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