GARDEN GROVE — A convenience store owner who 12 years ago fled religious persecution in the Sudan and prospered in Orange County was shot and killed Friday night in a botched robbery attempt, police said.
Hrair Kirabeit Ghazarossian, 45, an Armenian Christian and father of two who sold a $16.7-million winning lottery ticket in June, died of one fatal gunshot to the chest. No money was missing from the store, and no arrests have been made.
"He was pursuing the American dream," said Ghazarossian's brother, Jack Rossi, as sobs of grief caught in his throat. "He was a very quiet person, he didn't believe in violence. He didn't have any personal enemies, he didn't pick up fights, nothing. He was a very, very nice person. I don't know why this tragic thing happens."
At about 9:30 p.m. Friday, Ghazarossian called to his brother and co-owner, Ardash Ghazarossian, who was doing paperwork in he back room of the Valencia Market at 9252 Garden Grove Blvd. Ardash Ghazarossian said he emerged from the office and saw two young men standing by the ice cream cooler and the liquor section, one of them holding a sawed-off shotgun.
He tossed the stapler he was holding at the man with the gun, then hurried to the back room to call 911.
"It took me a while to call the cops. I was confused, I kept dialing 1-1-9 and 4-1-1," Ardash Ghazarossian, 35, recalled in an interview Saturday morning. "While I was working on the numbers, I heard my brother shouting, 'Get out!' After that shouting, I heard the gunshot.
"I kept working on the numbers," he said. "I had the feeling they were coming toward me, but there was nothing I could do. I came out and I saw my brother lying on the floor" behind the cash register.
Hrair Ghazarossian was pronounced dead at a hospital about an hour later.
The suspects, who were in their late teens to early 20s, fled after the shooting. They had been regular customers of the store several years earlier, Ardash Ghazarossian said.
"How can I be?" sobbed the victim's mother, Shake Ghazarossian, whose husband, the 92-year-old patriarch of the family, died about five weeks ago. "I am very sorry, I am very sad. He is my son."
Ghazarossian's father fled the Armenian genocide in 1915 and, after trekking across the Middle East on foot, became a shelf maker in the Sudan.
The eldest of three brothers, Hrair Ghazarossian earned a bachelor's degree in geology at the University of Khartoum and worked as a scientist in the Sudan for five years before coming to the United States.
Family members said that while they lived in the Sudan they were harassed and threatened because they were Christian in a Muslim country.
"At the end, they would threaten us. They would say, 'We will kill you. We will kill your family,' because of our religion," said Nora Rossi, Hrair Ghazarossian's sister-in-law.
She said family members were singled out, laughed at and told to leave the country.
Hrair Ghazarossian lived in Anaheim with his wife, Anahis; his brother Ardash and his two sons, 12-year-old Garo and Arthur, 4.
Operating the store, which the brothers had owned for a decade, was hard work, but successful. And three months ago, when a customer won a Quick Pick lottery jackpot, the owners got an $85,000 commission, Rossi said.
There had never before been a robbery at the store.
"Many, many people told us--everybody told us--to keep a gun handy near the cash register," Rossi said. "But we don't believe in guns. We don't believe in firearms. We don't believe in weapons."
Family members said Hrair Ghazarossian worked seven days a week at the store, and spent all his free time with his children.
Saturday, the older boy wandered around the house desperately searching for his father, the brothers said.
"He was looking for his father all over the house, he checked all over the house and then he was checking every corner he can," Ardash Ghazarossian said of his nephew, Garo. "He doesn't understand."
Ardash Ghazarossian said he would soon sell the store, unable to operate it on his own.
"He was my brother, he was my mentor like," Ardash Ghazarossian said. "He used to give all the ideas to the business, and I would just follow. He was very kind, a hundred times kinder than me.
"Any customer would tell you, I've got no doubts what they're going to tell about him: he's very kind, very gentle, understanding, likes helping people," Ghazarossian trailed off. "I can't tell all the good things."
* FEAR OF VIOLENCE: Fatal shooting worries employees at nearby stores. A36