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Westside Merchant's Slaying Stuns Neighborhood

October 06, 1994|KAY HWANGBO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After arsonists burned down Samuel Zekarias' convenience store during the 1992 riots, he and his wife thought they had weathered the worst crisis they could imagine in their adopted country.

Sadly, they were wrong.

"I wish it had stayed burned," his sister-in-law, Yeshi Robinson, said Tuesday. "If it had stayed burned, he would still be here."

Early Sunday morning, the 46-year-old Ethiopian immigrant was shot and killed by a man who robbed his 7-Eleven store at 4936 W. Pico Blvd. The gunman escaped with an unknown amount of money and was still at large, police said.

Although Zekarias was a businessman, he was concerned about more than making a profit, friends say. He used to give food to drifters who came to his store, and contributed time and money to neighborhood causes.

Neighbors say Zekarias seemed to provide the sunshine in their quiet Lake View Terrace neighborhood.

"He was part of the reason why everyone enjoyed living on this street," said neighbor Sandy Hubbard. "Before I even knew who he was, he'd wave, say 'Hi, how are you, what's going on in your life?' He was so friendly."

Diana Brkic, who lives across the street, said she and other neighbors were shocked that crime, for so long a threatening but abstract concept, had claimed one of their neighbors. The incident makes her consider leaving Los Angeles, she said.

"It seems to be getting worse and worse instead of better," she said.

Zekarias and his wife, Emebeth Haile, 39, came to Los Angeles in 1972. They have a daughter, Lydia, now 12, and both studied for a time at Southwest College in Los Angeles, before working a series of jobs. Somehow, they scraped together the cash to buy their house and in 1987 the 7-Eleven franchise on the Westside.

The store had been robbed twice before, but Zekarias just handed over the money and nothing worse happened, said Robinson, Haile's sister.

In the latest incident, a 25-year-old clerk was with Zekarias when the robber entered the store, flashed his gun and demanded money, according to police. After emptying the cash register, the man ordered the merchant to open the store safe. When Zekarias explained that the safe is programmed to open only at certain times, the man shot him, according to Detective L.J. Jones.

The store clerk was not injured, Jones said. The detective said that as far as he knows, Zekarias and the clerk offered no resistance.

"It's not uncommon for suspects who rob these types of locations to--without provocation--shoot and kill their witnesses," Jones said.

Southland Corp., the parent company of 7-Eleven, has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Zekarias' killer.

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