COLUMBIA, S.C. – A store owner in South Carolina charged with murder this week after shooting a teen he wrongly thought stole water has shot at suspected shoplifters two other times in the past eight years and not faced charges, authorities said.
In 2018, Rick Chow confronted a shoplifter at his Xpress Mart Shell station in Columbia and the man attacked him, Richland County deputies said. Chow fired two shots and the man was wounded in the leg, investigators said. The man pleaded guilty to charges in the case.
In 2015, Chow fired several shots at a vehicle after he tried to stop someone he suspected of shoplifting, and the suspect got into the vehicle and threatened to shoot Chow, deputies said. No one was hurt.
In both cases, authorities said Chow's actions were not criminal. Self-defense 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.
Deputies decided that was not the case Sunday, when they said Chow and his son chased a 14-year-old from his store and killed him with one shot to the back. Chow is charged with murder. Prosecutors said once the investigation is finished and police present their findings, they will consider additional charges against Chow or his son.
Chow thought the boy had shoplifted four bottles of water, but investigators said store video shows Cyrus Carmack-Belton, who was Black, put the bottles back in the cooler. After an argument, Carmack-Belton ran off the store property and was still running away when he was killed, Sheriff Leon Lott said.
A gun was found near the teen's body, and Chow's son told his father that Carmack-Belton was armed after the youth fell as he ran, Lott said. But the sheriff said there was no evidence the boy ever pointed the weapon at Chow or his son.
The sheriff's department didn't release additional information about the two other shooting incidents. They said deputies have been called to Chow's store in suburban northeast Richland County hundreds of times over the past five years for assaults, shoplifting, personal theft, motor vehicle theft, vandalism, robbery and burglary.
A number of media outlets have made open records requests for police reports from those incidents, and authorities say they are working to gather them.
Chow, 58, is awaiting a bond hearing at the Richland County jail. His lawyer has said he is not talking about the case at this time. Chow faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
Chow owned the gun legally, but witnesses and surveillance video provided no evidence that he was in fear of his life, Lott said.
“You don’t shoot somebody in the back that is not a threat to you," the sheriff said.
Anguish and grief spread after the shooting through the African American community in Richland County, where nearly half the population is Black.
The state's only Black congressman, Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, said Carmack-Belton's family should be celebrating his completion of the eighth grade and heading to high school instead of mourning him at his funeral Saturday.
“The criminalization of Black men and boys and the historic trend of painting them as aggressors have time and again led to deadly and heartbreaking circumstances," Clyburn said in a statement. “Carmack-Belton has since been declared innocent, but his supposed crime of shoplifting a bottle of water should not have cost him his life. I pray justice is swift.”
Chow's race in court records is listed as Asian.
Balloons, flowers, water bottles and a sign that says “Justice for King Cyrus” have been placed where the teen fell.
Several dozen people gathered at the store Monday for a peaceful vigil that included pouring water on the ground, spelling out “Cyrus” with the empty bottles and a sign taped to the locked door reading “Water or Life? Which means more?”
But after dark, deputies said a different group spray-painted the store with “Cyrus” and “14,” broke windows and started stealing beer, cigarettes and other merchandise. Lott said when they find the people he called looters, they will be charged.
The entire gas station is now behind yellow crime scene tape. Deputies put a portable surveillance unit with cameras in the parking lot. A sign reading “Justice 4 Cyrus” leans against the sign advertising the gas price.
This story corrects the first name throughout of the store owner to Rick.