In a case that mirrors the senseless 1991 shooting death of Latasha Harlins in California, Cyrus Carmack-Belton was shot by a South Carolina store owner who accused him of theft. Local authorities have reported that the teen was not in fact actually stealing anything. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

By AFRO Staff

South Carolina residents and elected officials alike are outraged by the murder of 14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton, shot dead by Rick Chow, 58, who suspected the teen of shoplifting water bottles on the warm spring evening of May 28. 

Congressman James E. Clyburn, who proudly serves South Carolina’s sixth district, weighed in on the killing, which took place along Parklane Road, a main road of the state’s capital city.

“I’m horrified and deeply saddened by the senseless murder of 14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton in Columbia,” said Clyburn, in a statement released on May 30. “His family and loved ones should be celebrating his recent eighth grade graduation from Summit Parkway Middle School. Instead, they are mourning this unimaginable loss. My prayers are with them and the entire community during this devastating time.”

Clyburn spoke on the distorted image of the Black men upheld in the public eye.

“This tragedy should have never happened. The criminalization of Black men and boys and the historic trend of painting them as aggressors have time and again led to deadly and heartbreaking circumstances. Cyrus Carmack-Belton has since been declared innocent, but his supposed crime of shoplifting a bottle of water should not have cost him his life. I pray justice is swift.” 

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott described the incident as “senseless” and announced that Chow was arrested and charged with murder on May 30. 

“I think it’s very important that we get the truth out. There’s a lot of different narratives being circulated that [are] not true, but the facts are very disturbing,” said Lott, in a press conference broadcast by local NBC affiliate, WIS TV. “The owners of the convenience store suspected him of shoplifting. He did not shoplift anything. We have no evidence that he stole anything whatsoever. There was a verbal confrontation inside the convenience store. The victim went outside–he took off running. The son of the owner of the convenience store gave chase.” 

Lott then described how the innocent teen’s life came to an end.

“The father, who owns the convenience store, joined in the chase. He was armed with a pistol,” Lott told reporters. “They chased the young man to Springtree Apartments. The young man fell down, but got back up. At some point, the son said that…the victim had a gun and we did recover a gun that was close to his body. At that point, the father shot the young man in the back. He was not laying on the ground. He did not have his hands up.” 

“Even if he had shoplifted four bottles of water–which is what he initially took out the cooler and then put back–even if he’d done that, That’s not something you shoot anybody over–much less a 14 year old –you just don’t do that.”

Protestors have since descended on the store, vandalizing the property where the middle schooler’s life was taken as he ran away from the bullets that struck the back of his body. While some have remained peaceful in their demonstrations, others have taken to violence. 

Rioters began to vandalize Rick Chow’s store roughly 24 hours after he allegedly shot down 14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton in Columbia, S.C. (Courtesy of Facebook/Richland County Sheriff Department)

The store was ransacked on May 29 after the killing began to make headlines. Sheriff Lott held a second press conference on May 30, live streamed from the Richland County Sheriff Department’s Facebook Meta page, to promise justice for those who vandalized and looted the alleged murderer’s store.

“That store did not shoot that 14 year old. The person responsible has been arrested. He’s in jail,” said Lott. “He’s in jail, exactly where he needs to be – that’s where justice is being served. Justice is being served by us going out and making an arrest. Justice is not served by going in and stealing cases of beer. That’s just not what justice is about.”

South Carolina Representative Todd Rutherford (D-SC-74) lamented over the teen’s death, publicly stating that the 14-year-old boy easily could have been his child. 

“This could have been MY son. In fact, this WAS my son. When Cyrus Carmack-Belton’s mother sent this picture to me I had to do a double take because he looked so much like my middle son,” shared Rutherford, from his personal Facebook Meta account. “What happened to him wasn’t an accident. It’s something that the Black community has experienced for generations: being racially profiled, then shot down in the street like a dog. Words can’t describe the pain I feel having known this family for decades.”

Rutherford asked that the public support the slain teen’s family in their time of need. 

“I’m asking that our community continue to wrap their arms around this family as they’ve joined the club that no Black family ever wants to be a part of. You’re outraged. I’m outraged. And this is why I can’t help but fight to ensure history isn’t whitewashed or forgotten,” he said. “This isn’t an anomaly, but I know America can be better. And THAT is what we’re fighting for. Because no family should have to deal with this in 2023.” 

The shooting death of Cyrus is eerily similar to the March 16, 1991 killing of fifteen-year-old LaTasha Harlins at the hands of store owner Soon Ja Du. According to information released by the U.S. National Archives, on that day “Harlins went to Empire Liquor Store, which was owned by Du, to purchase orange juice for her grandmother. A confrontation ensued when Du suspected Harlins of trying to steal. Security cameras showed that when Harlins turned to leave, she had money in her hand, and Du shot her in the back of the head.”

Similar to Chow, Du was charged for the killing. However, the National Archives reports that while a jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, “Judge Joyce Karlin overruled the jury, and sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.” 

Like Du, prior to the killing, Chow was already at odds with youths in the community. 

A video posted to social media earlier this month allegedly shows youth locked in a physical brawl inside of the store with workers who are clearly armed with at least one lethal weapon and a metal pipe. Sheriff Lott acknowledged that there had been multiple confrontations and problems at the location prior to the killing. 

Bail has been denied for Chow, bringing some comfort to those grieving the teen’s death. 

Funeral arrangements for Cyrus have been released. 

A viewing will be held at Leevy’s Funeral Home, located at 1831 Taylor Street in Columbia, S.C.  on June 2 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. A funeral service will take place at Second Nazareth Baptist Church, located at 2300 Elmwood Avenue, on June 3 beginning at noon.