Storeowner reopens store after relative was murdered

Recovering from four bullet wounds, Jose Melo's wife begged him not to go on Monday, but he would not hear of it.

Eleven days had passed since Melo last worked at his small corner store in Southwest Baltimore. On that day — Jan. 9 — he had come out of the bathroom hearing gunshots and screaming only to see a hooded gunman fire one more shot into his wife before fleeing. Her brother, who helped out behind the counter, was slumped next to her, fatally shot in the chest.

He wasn't scared, Melo told his wife, Irkania Moran, repeatedly. God would protect him, he said.

Melo, 52, reopened the Latino American Deli & Grocery at the corner of Christian and South Smallwood streets on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, determined to be free of fear. He walked past aisles of Gerber baby food and Glory collard greens to the rear deli where he makes the $3.75 subs he's known for around the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood. He threw out expired gallons of milk and stuffed stale rolls and loaves of white bread into a black trash bag and went to work.

A thin man with a well-trimmed mustache and tightly cropped hair, Melo wore jeans and tennis shoes to cushion the long hours on his feet during his first day back. He shoved up the sleeves on his blue-and-gray cardigan as he began doling out cigarillos for $1 or bags of Utz chips for handfuls of change.

"I live here for 30 years in U.S.A." the Dominican native said in broken English. "Me no stop."

Eighteen people have been killed in Baltimore this year, a bloody start after homicides rose 8 percent in 2013 — the second consecutive year of increases. Baltimore police said they were expanding the footprints of heavily patrolled "hot zone" violent crime areas, and every few hours a uniformed police officer stepped into Melo's store Monday to check on him.

There was never another choice but to reopen, Melo said. He had to support his wife and their two children, and he wasn't about to give up on the store he had purchased more than a year ago, plunking down more than $25,000 just to remodel the abandoned space.

He worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day. His first quarter earned is taped to the counter near a pile of Charleston Chews, and his first dollar hangs behind a Plexiglas wall with a few words written on it:

"Buena Suerte! Dios se lo bendiga. Genesis." Good luck. God bless you.

Just a few days ago, Melo buried his brother-in-law, Jose Abreu. Only four days had passed since several community members rallied on his behalf at a candlelight vigil, yelling out "We love you, Papi" and throwing donations in a bucket for his family.

Melo, in turn, had handed out free ham-and-cheese sandwiches and sodas because he was grateful for their support.

Doctors have told him that nerve damage means his wife may not be able to move her right arm for a year and a half. She is recovering at home, and it's unknown whether she will return to the store. A devout Catholic who faithfully attends Sagrado Corazon de Jesus near Canton, he told her that "God's protection" was with him, but Moran felt better once she found out Officer Miguel Martinez had gone to the store to watch over him.

Martinez, a Southwestern District patrol officer, had become a family friend when he learned Melo hailed from his home country of the Dominican Republic. Martinez, on his own time, worked the cash register and said he would continue to stop by the convenience store during his shifts, using it as a spot to file his police reports so his presence could give Melo additional reassurance.

Customers saw the deli's door open Monday and paraded in: white women in plush winter coats, black women wearing leopard-print scarves and leather jackets, teenagers with cellphones blaring hip-hop, Spanish-speaking fathers at the ATM, stubble-chinned men in sweats and bed hair, and young black men who said they considered Melo one of their own.

"Hey, Papi," a woman said, embracing Melo for so long that she squeezed tears out of him. "How you doing?"

"A lot of people thought you wouldn't open back up, but I told 'em you'd open back up," Terry Barton, 22, told Melo with a huge smile.

Few are like "Papi," customers say, a man who shrugs when they are short a few cents or writes IOU's in a black book when they don't have the money for goods right then.

"Other stores," Barton said, "they don't even let you go for a penny. This store right here? He show you love."

Melo arrived more than a year ago from New York, where he operated a similar store in Jamaica, Queens, for decades. But as time passed, he said, "you never see your money because it's only for bills."

So he moved his family to Baltimore, which seemed more affordable, and found a corner store for sale on the Internet. When he first opened, he said, he wanted to win the community over, so on that first Saturday he set out a table on the sidewalk with some ham-and-cheese sandwiches and gave them out for free. He soon developed a following.

"He takes his time. He makes 'em nice and neat," repeat customer Regina Horton said Monday as she ordered a sub with provolone.

"Gourmet!" Melo interrupted her behind the deli counter. "Gourmet. I buy expensive meat!"

"But it's just his attitude," Horton continued. "He's so nice and warm. I'm just shocked."

She said she felt a chill standing in the deli — not from fear but gloom — saddened that someone would victimize him.

Police believe they know who gunned down Melo's brother-in-law and wounded his wife. In the weeks surrounding the shooting, police said, Robert Hopkins, 28, was a "one-man crime spree" who committed several violent crimes — including a fatal shooting of a carjacking victim on Jan. 10 — before he barricaded himself in a North Baltimore building and shot himself to death with SWAT members and a police negotiator outside.

"Homicide detectives believe Robert Hopkins is responsible for this murder," Baltimore police spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert said Monday about the corner-store shooting. "However, we're working with the state's attorney's office to review a little more evidence."

Melo said he has serious doubts. He said a picture police showed him of Hopkins doesn't match the man in his memory. Detectives told him it was an old picture, Melo said.

"I need proof," he said he responded. "Then I need a new picture."

Melo said he would not stop demanding justice until he was sure the real suspect had been identified. "My brother-in-law and wife aren't animals. They're two people," he said.

Milton Leigh, who walked in to order a sandwich, said he wouldn't call police if he knew who the killer was. He would hand him over to Melo's family — but only after the suspect had been roughed up.

"That's how a lot of people around here feel," he said.

Standing behind the front counter filled with candy bars and off-brand cigarettes, Melo thanked customers such as Leigh and the steady stream of well-wishers who arrived all day. His eyes were red from constant tears and his voice hoarse from emotion. He said he still sees his brother-in-law around the store and remembers too vividly washing the wounds of Abreu and his wife with rubbing alcohol while he called 911. He still plays over in his mind his wife saying she tried to give the gunman money, but he refused to accept it.

"My wife say, 'Take the money. Take the money,'" Melo said. "He take nothing. He come only to kill."

He pointed to where the blood from Abreu and Moran had pooled on the linoleum floor. It had been cleaned up by a friend, and the smell of pine-scented floor cleaner was fresh. But then he bent down and saw a quarter-sized red stain hiding on the counter door just below the hinges.

"Blood," he said. "I have to clean it up."

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