- Associated Press - Sunday, February 21, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Nothing can stop Carrell Lee from doing his duty as a son.

Not 500 miles. Not an anonymous robber. Not four bullets to the stomach.

“My parents gave me a good life,” Lee, 59, said. “Education-wise, support-wise, they contributed and helped where it was needed.

“I couldn’t just walk out on them; it was something I had to do.”

Today, Lee works behind the counter at Oakland Package Store, the business at Albany Avenue and Oakland Terrace that his father, Everett, opened in 1968.

But a year ago, he was clinging to life in the intensive care unit at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center with horrific internal injuries.

Lee was shot at point-blank range last January while closing up the store, which he took over three years ago for his aging parents.

“I’m here to help my mom and dad; that’s first and foremost,” he said. “I’m even more fortunate to still be walking around. I’m not taking that for granted.”

Lee said he had to “leave the nest” in Hartford in his late 20s to strike out on his own. He landed in Virginia, where his older sister had established herself.

For 20 years, he enjoyed life in his new home, raising two kids and working as a collections specialist for a bank. But as the years went on, and his own children left the nest, he started worrying about his parents, alone in their package store.

“I could see my help was needed here,” he said. “There was no way my parents were going to survive without me being here.”

Everett Lee is 82, a man with weak knees but a strong personality. On a recent afternoon, he sat in a folding chair in the store he developed, watching as Carrell took customers’ orders.

“I’m glad he stayed after all this happened,” the elder Lee said. “He didn’t pick up and run; he’s hanging in with me, and I’m proud of him.”

The Rev. Henry Brown of Mothers United Against Violence is in turn proud of the entire Lee family for not fleeing the North End.

“It’s a wonderful thing that they’re dedicated to staying here, that they’re not letting the violence scare them,” said Brown, who got to know the family after his group organized a vigil outside the store in support of Carrell Lee. “Their example shows that people in the community will not be driven out of neighborhoods they’ve built their lives in.”

Charles Blanks, who grew up with Lee, his classmate at Northwest Catholic High School, isn’t surprised that his longtime friend stuck around.

“You don’t run from where you were brought up and raised,” said Blanks. Like Lee, he is working hard to keep a family business alive: C.H. Blanks and Sons Oil, started by his father, Clarence, in 1966.

“He came up as a good man, in a family that understood the value of work,” Blanks said of Lee. “He always had a great personality, always had a sense for people who didn’t have what he did.”

Blanks still regularly visits Oakland Package Store, and popped in about a week ago to say hi.

“I was hurt myself when he was shot, watching how it hurt his mother,” Blanks said.

Lee remembers the night, Jan. 21, 2015, with total clarity. There is one glaring gap, however: the identity of the gunman who ambushed him.

(No arrests have been made in the case, according to Hartford Police Deputy Chief Brian Foley. Lee’s shooting remains an open investigation with the department’s Major Crimes Division.)

It was “ice cold” outside, and the store’s foot traffic had been slow for hours, Lee said. By 7 p.m., business had all but stopped, and he convinced his mom that it was time to go home.

Between 7:50 and 8:10, he was locking up the store and took a few seconds to go out to his truck, parked in the alley next to the shop, to warm it up for his 79-year-old mother, Lillian.

A broken key fob forced him to unlock both doors on his truck manually. After helping his mom into her seat, Lee walked around the back of the truck toward the driver’s side. He noticed some movement, a figure near the back of the building.

“I thought it was one of my guys, getting something out of the back room or using the bathroom back there,” Lee said. “I didn’t pay it any mind.”

Then he felt a hand grab him by the collar. And something firm and cold press into his side.

“He said ‘Give it to me,’ and I said ‘Give you what? I don’t have anything,’” Lee said.

Every time Lee tried to turn around to face his attacker, the man grabbed him tighter and pushed him away, desperate to conceal his identity.

“I knew this wasn’t his first time out,” Lee said. “He knew what he was doing.”

His plan was to back the mugger up against the nearby fence, to force him to drop the gun. The two struggled, with Lee so lost in the moment that he didn’t feel the impact of the bullets as they ripped into him, or hear the gunshots.

All he knew is that he suddenly felt “exhausted,” and he was desperate to break away. So he handed over the gold chain with a crucifix that he wore around his neck.

“It was all I had, and I gave it willingly,” Lee said. “Nothing material is worth dying over.”

The gunman left, and Lee collapsed in the alley, unable to breathe.

That’s where Lillian Lee found her son when she got out of the truck to investigate the gunfire.

Even now, the details of that night haunt her. She still struggles with the reality of the act and how close she came to losing her son.

“I don’t know who would want to do this; everyone knows us around here,” she said. “We’ve been here for 48 years and never had any problems.”

A tenant who lives above the store called 911, and medics arrived soon afterward, she said. Lee spent two months in intensive care, undergoing several surgeries. He was lucky: One of the hollow-point bullets had nicked his liver. A few inches lower, and he wouldn’t be around to tell his story.

Lee had a long road to recovery, but he wasn’t alone. He said he received “millions” of emails and Facebook messages, and was stunned that Brown and his group organized a vigil in his honor to pray with his parents.

“You think you know that people care about you, but until they show it, you don’t grasp it,” Lee said. “It becomes something you consume. It’s part of the healing process.”

Lee doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be in the store, but it’s not because he’s abandoning it. His parents are looking to sell it, to hang it up after many decades of success.

“I’m here to maintain things, make sure things run good until we find a buyer,” he said. “Once we find a buyer, that’s it.”

When the shop changes hands, Lee will go back full time to his condo in Virginia Beach, which he now visits every few months to water the plants and make small repairs.

But until that day, Lee will be in Hartford, taking orders, paying vendors, and making sure the shelves are stocked. And he’ll do it all while sporting a replacement gold chain and crucifix, nearly identical to the one he lost.

“It was a cross that blessed me to still be here,” he said. “I’m not going to change that.”


Information from: Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com

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