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Armed robberies take a tragic toll on Houston families

November 13, 2018

Every time Phyllis Bhuiya heard a siren, she would drop whatever she was doing. Slipping on her shoes, she would rush to the convenience store behind her apartment where her husband Faruk Bhuiya worked and make sure he was alright.

“He’s always there at night, and look where we live,” she said, referring to their northwest Houston neighborhood where crime is a near constant.

Saturday night, Bhuiya heard the first siren and started putting on her shoes. By the third siren, she was out the front door, trying to finish getting her shoes on while walking fast. As she neared the store and saw police and emergency medical workers, a neighbor looked up and said, “I’m so sorry.”

Her deepest fears were now reality: her husband had been fatally shot in the face by armed robbers who entered the store.

Faruk Bhuiya, 35, was the second convenience store worker killed in a robbery in a week’s span. He joins a group of store clerks in the Houston area this year who have been slain while earning their livelihood in an industry that nationwide is hit by thousands of holdups each year.

Bhuiya is at least the fourth person in 2018 to be gunned down during an attempted robbery of a convenience store in the Greater Houston area, according to a search of Houston Chronicle records. But while convenience stores are often perceived as dangerous places to work — law enforcement agencies reported almost 21,000 convenience store robberies in 2017 — industry groups argue the reality may not seem as drastic as the perception.

Bhuiya was killed on Saturday after a pair of hooded men came into the Metro Convenience Store on Witte near Haddington around 8:30 p.m. while there were other customers in the store. They held him at gunpoint and demanding money from the register.

It’s unclear what happened or how many shots were fired, but one of the men started shooting, fatally wounding the clerk, Houston police have said.

The suspects fled on foot and were still being sought on Monday. Store surveillance images show the faces of the two men — one in a dark-colored hoodie and one in a red one — who police say are involved in the crime.

Two days later and with just three hours of sleep, Phyllis Bhuiya acknowledged she was still in denial as she stood in her kitchen wearing a Hogwarts Alumni t-shirt and eating Ritz crackers. She kept shooting glances at the front door, still expecting her husband of almost two years to walk in and say, “Ha! Gotcha!”

But despite her pain and anguish, she forgives the criminals who killed the man she said balanced her out and made her a better person.

“Carrying around this little bit of hate, it can fester. And next thing you know, you’re hating everybody and everything,” she said. “And that is what Faruk would tell me. ‘Forgive them.’”

There’s a lot she’s going to miss about Faruk.

She’s going to miss the thoughtful gifts he would get her, like the elegant coffee cup painted with blue and pink roses. She’s going to miss their talks about religion — he was a practicing Muslim, she is a Catholic. She’s going to miss the coffee that was waiting for her on the kitchen counter in the mornings. She’s going to miss the way he, a Bangladeshi immigrant, tried to say American expressions — “Farm out!” (far out), and “Hole eggs” (eggs-in-a-hole).

Bhuiya held a candlelight vigil for her late husband at the convenience store Sunday, where she said more than 50 people showed up. When her daughter comes into town, she’s going to do a balloon release in his favorite color, white.

Another family across town is experiencing a grief similar to Bhuiya’s.

Just seven days before Bhuiya’s death, father of five Hafeez Qureshi was killed while working a night shift at a southwest Houston convenience store.

At closing time on Saturday, Nov. 3, four men rushed into Sonny’s on Dairy Ashford and shot 66-year-old Qureshi to death.

The clerk, who was working his last shift before his planned retirement, was getting ready to go home when the suspects came in the store.

Qureshi’s son-in-law, Ikram Ullah, said Qureshi was generous and would go out of his way to help everyone.

Originally from Pakistan, Qureshi never failed to provide his nine brothers and two sisters back home with financial and moral support. He would ask his wife to cook homemade meals for him to bring for his employees, making sure they ate before him — even if it meant he wouldn’t eat at all. He would even help his employees financially, who Ullah said came to their family home crying in grief over his slaying. Several of Qureshi’s customers attended his funeral last Tuesday.

“He never showed me if he was disheartened or broken down,” Ullah said. “He only ever showed me his strong side. He would rather help you than you help him.”

His suspected killers — 18-year-old Daivion Gully, 20-year-old Melvin Jones, 28-year-old Artavius Johnson, and 19-year-old DeAnjelo Wells, 19 — were charged with capital murder Friday in connection with the slaying.

In August, a 32-year-old gas station store manager was fatally shot during a robbery as he was leaving his business in the Fifth Ward.

And in May, clerk Jose De Jesus Garcia was slain in a hold-up at a Spring Branch-area robbery of a convenience store.

Convenience stores are often perceived as dangerous places to work, in part because of late-night hours which can make them attractive to criminals.

Jeff Lenard, spokesman of the National Association of Convenience Stores pointed out that robberies at convenience stores and gas or service stations accounted for just 9.6 percent of all robberies in the United States in 2017, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

Law enforcement agencies reported 20,967 robberies at convenience stories and an additional 9,566 at gas or service stations, according to the 2017 crime report. That same year, a total of 319,356 places were robbed, including residences and banks.

Lenard said the perception of danger at convenience stores is largely due to the sheer amount of the establishments across the country, and that convenience stores exist in every community — regardless of whether it’s deemed a “safe” or “unsafe” neighborhood.

But Lenard stressed he didn’t want to downplay the seriousness of the problem.

“Perception is reality,” Lenard said. “Nobody wants to own a store that is in any way associated with crime. It’s not good for business, it’s not good for getting employees there. You want to do everything you can to minimize the likelihood that your store is a target.”

Lenard suggested that his association urges stores to carry less cash on hand and to use safes that are rigged to not open as quickly. Those tactics limit the robbers’ access to money, making the stores a less likely target, he said.

“Time is a criminal’s enemy, because the more time that’s spent committing a crime, the more likely they are to be noticed,” Lenard said.

Other safety features in the building — such as easy visibility into windows, good lighting, fencing and limited access to the store — can also maximize the risk of robbing the establishments, Lenard said. Security experts also suggest that clerks don’t resist when they’re robbed and quickly give in to the robbers’ demands, he said.

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