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A Friend Indeed : A Store Clerk Was Shot and Paralyzed by Robbers While Protecting His Boss, Who Now Steps In With Support

October 06, 1994|CHING-CHING NI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Francisco Gonzalez, a South-Central Los Angeles liquor store clerk, thought Young S. Choo was the perfect boss.

Choo gave him pay advances, grocery discounts and time off on his birthday.

Choo thought Gonzalez, his sole employee, was an ideal worker, hard-working and liked by all the customers.

For two years they worked side by side, until a robber's bullet tore through Gonzalez's spine on Sept. 23, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

All the robbers got was a $2.25 bottle of pineapple drink.

"If they took my money, that's a lot better than this happening," said Choo, 47, who was spared in the attack.

Now Choo is promising to take care of the 37-year-old clerk's pregnant wife, who is expecting her baby in a week, and the Gonzalezes' 3-year-old daughter. He has contacted victim-assistance programs and state welfare organizations, and says he will pay the $400-a-month rent on the Gonzalezes' house behind the store.

"Mr. Choo is a beautiful owner," said Gonzalez, bedridden in the Memorial Rehabilitation Hospital in Long Beach. "He helped me so much."

Gonzalez says he had worked about five years for the previous store owner. Choo kept him on when he bought the South Vermont Avenue store the day the 1992 riots erupted.

"The riot was Wednesday," Choo said from behind his counter, now protected by a bulletproof shield. "I expected to change ownership Friday. I closed the deal on Wednesday, and the riot was the same night. Then everything was on hold. About three months later, I took over."

Until the robbery, business was peaceful. Children walked in to buy eggs, chips and bubble gum. Adults came for soft drinks and liquor. The area is not one of the safest in the city, but Los Angeles Police Department Detective Dan Meyer said there had not been a robbery in the store "for a long time."

"Everybody knows Chico," Choo said, using Gonzalez's nickname. "All my customers ask about him."

Choo said two armed robbers posing as customers demanded that he empty his cash register, which contained about $500 cash.

"I stepped back," Choo said of the confrontation, which was captured on his surveillance camera. (It was later broadcast on TV and led to the arrest of one of the suspects.) "One guy pointed his gun at us. The other guy jumped over" the counter.

Choo, who said he does not carry a gun, explained that Gonzalez tried to prevent the robbery and protect his boss by pulling out his own gun.

During the struggle that followed, Gonzalez shot one of the attackers, Joseph Graham, 31, who died after fleeing the store. Police said the second attacker, Lynn Stewart, yelled to his partner to "get the cash register," then reached over the counter and shot Gonzalez in the back. The robbers, however, did not get the chance to touch the register.

Lying in the hospital, where doctors say he might spend months undergoing rehabilitation to adapt to a wheelchair, Gonzalez seems not to regret what he did.

"This guy wanted to kill Mr. Choo," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to help Mr. Choo. That's why I took out my gun."

The loyalty did not escape his boss.

"He protected me," Choo said. "He would not be hurt if he was not trying to protect me."

Choo is especially concerned about Gonzalez's 25-year-old wife, Evelia Gutierrez. She goes to the hospital every day to be with her husband.

After the shooting, Choo called everywhere looking for help for Gonzalez and his family. Now his insurance is paying the hospital bills, Choo said. But he said that even if the Gonzalezes get the financial help they are seeking, it will not be enough.

"I will give her $100 a week to pay the rent," he said, even though he is uncertain how long he can continue to provide financial assistance. "Maybe he'll stay (in the hospital) for a full year, or two. I don't know."

Choo, who formerly owned a dry cleaners, recently hired a man who would only give his name as Sergeant Smith. But he said that if Gonzales can eventually return to work, he is willing to make his store wheelchair accessible. "I need him," Choo said, "because he's a really nice guy and he's good to the customers."

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