Did Shopowner Take 'Thou Shalt Not Steal' too Far?

Business owner recalls the day gunmen entered his store, and how he fought back.

September 21, 2009, 1:42 PM

Sept. 23, 2009 — -- It happens all over the country, and the results can be seen all over the Internet.

In Phoenix, a jewelry store owner fought back after two robbers used mace to try to subdue him. In Tacoma, Wash., a clerk resisted an attempted robbery by turning the robber's own weapon on him.

And it happened on 125th Street in New York's Harlem. The neighborhood is home to the famed Apollo Theater -- and the lesser-known Blue Flame Supply Co., where 72-year-old Coast Guard veteran Charles Augusto Jr., known as Gus, had worked for 50 years. Now he owns the place.

"There wasn't much business, it was a boring day," Augusto said, recalling the afternoon of Aug. 13. "This is where I was sitting when they came in, and I heard the front door. As you can see, I couldn't see how many of those people came in, I couldn't tell how many people had guns, 'cause you can't see from down there. ... All I know is the kid with the hoodie on and the heavy, heavy sweatshirt had a gun, and he was standing there pointing it at Dorothy," who was one of his employees.

Augusto said he remembered the standoff in every detail.

"He had his hand through the window, I think it was his left hand," he said. "He doesn't know I'm here. And he's threatening her: 'Where's the money, Where's the money? I'll kill you if you don't give me the money.' And I'm sitting here, and I'm saying, 'Hey kid. ...' He got startled, he jumped up. He got startled. And now he's waving the gun back and forth."

Augusto said the man couldn't decide whom to point the gun at.

"He didn't know what to do," Augusto said. "I told him, 'There's no money. Nobody came in and bought anything today, I'm telling the truth.'"

Another of Augusto's employees, who goes by the name of Jay, was near the front door struggling with the intruders.

"Then I told the kid to go. And then the one in the red shirt came up and said, 'I need help,' to subdue Jay," Augusto said. "If Jay didn't put up a fight ... I couldn't have done nothing.

"Once he went down there, that's when he made a mistake."

'These Kids Had Guns'

The assailant's "mistake" would cost him his life. Left alone while the first robber went back to help subdue Jay, Augusto reached for a gun he'd bought 20 years ago after his store, which sells stoves and other kitchen equipment, was robbed at gunpoint.

"The ammunition was in there 20 years, I didn't even know if the ammunition was gonna fire. These kids had guns. ... Oh, Christ, if this thing doesn't fire, bye-bye Gus," he said. "I'm a dead duck. I couldn't let them keep pistol-whipping this kid out there. So I stepped out in the aisle and I watched Jay so I wouldn't hit him with the damn shotgun, and I fired off three rounds. Bang bang bang. And I saw that the threat had diminished. One was down on the ground, he was dead. And I saw the other three trying to get out the door. ... They had the door open, and they were trying to get out, so I didn't shoot no more."

But the three shots Gus did fire were enough to kill two of the men, James Morgan, 29, and Raylin Footman, 21. The other two, Shamel McCloud and Bernard Witherspoon, were wounded, and have since been indicted on robbery charges. They have since plead not guilty.

It got us wondering if there were any similarities between this shooting and the case of Bernard Goetz, the so-called subway vigilante, another white man who, 25 years ago shot four young black men in New York City.

The Goetz case crystallized many New Yorkers' rage at rampant crime in the city and sparked a nationwide debate on vigilantism and race.

No one has talked about race in the Blue Flame Supply Co. case.

"Race had nothing to do with it," Augusto said. "Matter of fact, I wonder where Al Sharpton is, who is always screaming about these things. You don't come around and say 'Hey Gus, you did a good job saving this black boy from these thugs and your black girl.' These are black people I risked my life to save."

Augusto said the Goetz case was different.

"I remember Goetz -- he was a vigilante," he said. "He went out, he went out there looking for trouble and he shot people after he didn't have to anymore -- it's different. It's a different situation. Once a threat is gone, you don't keep shooting them. You only do it to protect your life and the lives of the people around you. Anybody else is a vigilante, that's right."

Goetz admitted shooting the four unarmed men after they asked him for $5. He also acknowledged continuing to fire after the men were on the ground. Charged with attempted murder and assault, he was convicted only of illegal possession of a firearm.

New York 'Too Tough' on Guns?

Though Augusto is adamant he never wanted any trouble, he is a firm believer in a citizen's right to bear arms.

His gun was registered.

"I tell you -- the city of New York is too tough on gun laws," said Augusto. "You walk out of here, and if they want to rape you on the street you can't even stop them -- what are you supposed to do, say, 'Please don't'?

"But if you did that in Texas, you could have a derringer in your pocket, and when he's on top of you put it in his belly and shoot him. But here you can't do anything. The laws are too strict here.

"I think law-abiding citizens should be able to have weapons," he said. "If they commit a crime with that weapon, I think the penalty should be severe, way more severe than they are now, but they should have the right to do it.

"And if criminals thought, 'Hey, you know maybe that person's got a gun ... or maybe that person's got a gun' -- maybe nobody's got a gun. All these people understand, it's brute force. They're not afraid of police, they're not afraid of the law, only brute force."

Despite his tough talk, Augusto said he struggles every day with what he did.

"I was sick, I couldn't eat for days. But I'm sure the next time will be easier," he said. "I still feel lousy. I did the right thing. I'm telling you I'd do it again under the same circumstances, but I'll feel lousy. I feel sh***y. Oh, sorry, I feel lousy. It's very hard to kill somebody."

Augusto said his son committed suicide several years ago, and that he feels for the dead men's families.

"They've got to feel lousy, I know that," he said. "I mean, it's very painful to lose a son. But I'll tell you, the pain I felt when my son died don't compare to the pain that I felt when I had to kill those two boys. Because my son, I didn't do it to them, here, I had to do it to them. That feels worse. Until you do it, you're never gonna know that."

Augusto said he had never killed anyone before, during his time in the Coast Guard or otherwise.

"I hope I don't have to do it again," he said. "I never thought I'd have to do it this time. I came in here like I do every other day, go into work, take care of my business. I never dreamt I'd have to at the end of the day kill two people."

One local, Keith McNeill, said he appreciated what Augusto did.

"He is a hero, for right now there's no more robbers around this neighborhood," McNeill said. "Right now what he done, he sent a message out to all the robbers. Good job, Gus."

Unlike Bernie Goetz, who was both vilified and exalted for his actions, Augusto and his actions do not appear to have divided the public.

Letters of support pour in daily from around the country calling him a hero and praising him for defending himself and his employees. The New York Post nominated him for its Liberty Award, which he said he won't accept.

"I don't know if I'm a hero," he said. "I would have really felt like a hero if the boys went home. But I can understand why people say that. They were threatened by these people, they were abused, and they were afraid to take action. So when somebody takes action and does something that makes them say, 'Oh, I wish I did that. I'd love to be a hero.' They're probably all laying in bed at night fantasizing [about] doing something to be a hero.

"It's not easy being a hero."

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