Middle Georgia is home to plenty of people like Lou Patel, a native of India whose family is chasing the American dream.
Patel’s family left modest means in the city of Ahmedabad a little more than 28 years ago in search of a better education for him, then a 6-year-old, and his siblings. Now, Patel is leading a business association that hopes to make business safer after three men who shared his last name were slain during robberies in the midstate in the past two months.
“I don’t think it’s targeted toward us,” he said. “I think it’s just the economy, tough times. The economy’s what’s affecting everything, and I think the police are doing a good job and we need to focus on safety.”
In that, Patel echoed other Asian-American businessmen who want better lives for their families but worry about safety.
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Kamal Patel, a British-born man of Indian descent, has been running Capello’s New York Subs (previously Larry’s Giant Subs) on Riverside Drive for the past six years. For the past 24 years, he’s been pursuing opportunities and said he couldn’t have succeeded if he wasn’t so welcome.
“We come here. We want to make a better life for ourselves and our families, and that’s what we’re looking for, a good life,” he said. “And that’s every Indian and Asian and anyone who comes to this country, really.”
Andy Shah, who runs Neal’s Food Mart on Gray Highway, said he’s always cautious as he works to help his family. With a daughter in college and a younger son, “the responsibility comes to keep my family stable,” he said.
But that goal comes with long hours. When he’s home, he’s often checking his store’s security cameras through the Internet. Sometimes, when he’s off the job while one of his two employees works, he’ll still drive to his store’s parking lot to see how things are going. In the store, he may confront loiterers directly or call police on them. The police, he said, are especially helpful at night.
“When we close, there’s a police car here,” he said.
After the last of the three slayings, Macon’s mayor put 27 officers on business patrols in what has been dubbed “Operation Safe Business II.”
Shah has run his store during four of his 12 years in the U.S. He’s originally from Baroda, a city in India’s Gujarat state, the homeland of many of Middle Georgia’s Indian people.
“Since I came here in Macon, Macon has been good and safe to us,” he said.
When more than 600 people gathered Thursday for a rally in memory of the three men shot to death, Shah closed his business so he could attend. He found hope in the rally, which included an invocation during which Asian hands clutched black and white hands.
“All the communities are coming together and making our neighborhoods safe, our communities safe, our businesses safe,” Shah said.
Macon police statistics show that the first half of 2009 generally had less crime than a year earlier. With two exceptions, all statistics had dropped — fewer rapes, assaults, arsons, burglaries.
But the number of homicides was the same, at 9. Robberies jumped 20 percent, from 183 to 220.
It’s the killings and robberies that drew Asians together.
July 15, Lina Food Store owner Dilipbhai “Danny” Patel was shot and killed in a botched armed robbery of his Baldwin County business, just outside Milledgeville.
Then Dipak “Danny” Patel was shot Aug. 30 after he handed money to men robbing the Chevron station at 1257 Riverside Drive in Macon.
Four nights later on Sept. 4, Jaymal Patel was killed outside a RaceWay convenience store in west Bibb County, on Mercer University Drive near Interstate 475. He’d been waiting for his brother to get off work. He handed over his empty wallet to his assailant before he was shot in the head.
A 16-year-old was charged in Jaymal Patel’s slaying about 15 hours later. Three men, ages 18 to 25, were charged in Dipak Patel’s slaying less than a week after that killing. Deputies are still trying to solve Dilipbhai Patel’s slaying.
The name Patel is common in India, which immigrants compare to Smith in the United States. In the United States now, the name is common among unrelated people: Patels make up more than half of the membership of the national Asian American Hotel Owners Association, which represents about 40 percent of America’s hotels.
David Davis, one of Bibb County’s chief deputies, said investigators have found no evidence to link the three killings, or the victims, or that any of the attacks were personal.
“It was perceived by the criminal element that convenience stores were easy to rob,” he said. “We’re doing all we can to dispel that notion.”
Last weekend, Lou Patel and 10 other business leaders formed the Middle Georgia Asian American Business Community Association, which scheduled a Sept. 22 training session on security cameras and may create self-defense classes and other training sessions.
Jack Singh, a Macon resident for nearly 13 years, held aloft an “Enough Is Enough” sign during Thursday’s rally. He saw no evidence that Indians or anyone else were being targeted in the killings. But no matter, he said. No parent should have to bury a child.
“I think it’s a random thing, I don’t know,” he said. “If it’s not the Indian race, if it’s any other race, everyone needs to come together” against the violence.
Singh said the city was moving in the wrong direction even before the slayings, citing a carjacking and violence at businesses that were directed against all ethnicities.
Macon police and Bibb County sheriff’s deputies are doing a good job, he said, but even before the recent killings he was worried about his wife and two sons going shopping. This week, he read of judges lowering bail bond amounts to ease jail crowding and called for change.
“We wouldn’t mind giving extra if we have to build a bigger prison,” he said. “We’re scared to send our kids and spouses to anyplace. We have to think twice.”
Macon grocer Jaswant Singh said Thursday’s rally showed how the crimes have created unity.
“It’s a tragedy in the town which has brought all the people together,” he said. “That’s a strong message to the thugs: This will not be tolerated.”
Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.