Store owner charged with murder in Black teen’s killing fights warrant over business records

Photo of Rick Chow, who has been charged, Monday, May 29, 2023, with murder in the death of a 14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton. (Richland County Sheriffs Department)

A lawyer for a store owner in South Carolina facing a murder charge after police said he chased and shot a Black 14-year-old who he had falsely accused of stealing water has asked a judge to stop a search warrant for his business records.

Cyrus Carmack-Belton was fatally shot in the back on May 28, a killing that sent waves of anguish and grief through the African American community in Richland County, where nearly half the population is Black. A gun was found near Carmack-Belton’s body, but investigators have said there is no evidence that the teen ever directed the firearm at Rick Chow or his son, who together had pursued Carmack-Belton on a chase that stretched about 500 feet (152 meters) past their family’s Xpress Mart Shell station in Columbia.

A prosecutor on Monday said investigators need to search computers and other electronics from Chow and his family to find the store’s employee manual and other documents that could potentially reveal a pattern of behavior in how Chow normally dealt with shoplifters and how Carmack-Belton was treated differently.

But Chow’s lawyer said his family already turned over what authorities wanted without a warrant and argued that investigators are now looking for items they can’t legally have.

According to news outlets, defense attorney Jack Swerling said investigators "have no business looking at that stuff," including checks, bank accounts and "different types of information that are used for the operation of a business."

Judge Robert Hood temporarily stopped state agents from executing the search warrant on Chow at Monday’s hearing and promised a ruling early next month.

Chow, who is Asian, thought the teen stole four bottles of water, but police said surveillance video showed Carmack-Belton picked up the bottles and put them down.

Chow and his son chased the teen after he left the store and Chow told investigators he fired a shot after his son told him Carmack-Belton had a gun after the teen fell as he ran, authorities said.

Carmack-Belton was shot once in the back, prompting authorities to levy a murder charge. "You don’t shoot somebody in the back that is not a threat to you," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at the time of the killing.

Prosecutor April Sampson said at Monday’s emergency hearing that Chow and his son followed the teen around from the moment he entered, treating him differently than other customers and not according to the policy the owner made his employees follow.

"The crime starts, in our position, from the minute he walks in the store when they start treating him differently than they did anybody else who came in that store," Sampson said.

Chow’s lawyer said investigators already have the store’s only employee manual, a three-page document that does not mention any store policies for dealing with shoplifters.

Also, as owners, the Chows would set store policy, but would not have to necessarily follow it, Swerling said.

After hearing arguments, Hood said trying to contradict the credibility of witnesses is not a valid reason to get a search warrant and that even if investigators found a written policy saying to chase shoplifters, Hood wasn’t sure that would be possible proof of a crime required for the warrant.

But he also said he has never been asked to stop a search warrant, an issue which is usually handled by lower court judges.

Protestors came to Chow’s store the day after the shooting demanding justice and saying Chow mistreated Black customers. Police records showed he shot at shoplifters twice in the past eight years but did not face charges after investigators said he acted in self-defense.

After the protests, Chow’s store was vandalized and broken into and cigarettes and beer were stolen, police said.