By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 8:44 PM
He was there seven days a week, the shopkeeper everyone went to for bread and milk and maybe some conversation, if he had the time. At day's end, Raj Patel would climb a single flight of stairs to an apartment he shared with his two co-workers, who happened to be his wife and grown son.
Patel, 46, did not get home Saturday night. Two men in ski masks robbed his shop, the Newton Foodmart in Brookland, just after 6:30 p.m. and shot him in the chest while his wife and son cowered beneath the front counter.
Patel died after emergency workers rushed him to a hospital. The gunmen stole cash and fled before police officers arrived.
"It's a terrible thing to happen, Jesus!" said Tyronne Thompson, 61, pausing for a moment Sunday outside the closed store at Newton and 12th streets NE, a spot that drew mournful neighbors and fellow shopkeepers all morning.
A man who identified himself as Patel's nephew said that Patel had been in the back of the store when the robbers arrived and accosted his wife and son, ordering them down on the floor. One of the thieves shot Patel as he emerged from a storage room, the nephew said.
"My uncle had no idea the robbery was happening," said the nephew, who declined to identify himself for fear of retribution. "He walked out, and the guy fired at him and ran off."
D.C. police are offering up to $25,000 to anyone with information that leads to an arrest.
Brookland, home to Catholic University, was one of the city's most rapidly changing neighborhoods during the economic boom, as young professionals bought homes, new businesses opened and developers such as Jim Abdo arrived with ambitious plans.
Even with the area's renaissance, said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), whose district includes Brookland, crime remains a persistent issue whether at midday or early evening, when Patel was killed.
"It should have been a safe moment," Thomas said. "It always sends a signal that you've got to be careful."
Patel and his wife, whom Thomas identified as Ramele Patel, began managing the shop more than two years ago along with their son, Chirag.
"Hey, young lady!" or "What's up, young lady!" was the way Patel always greeted Theresa Joachim, manager of a neighboring CVS, who hung a pink placard on her friend's storefront.
"Sorry for your loss," someone wrote.
"We will miss you, Pops," wrote someone else.
"He was always jolly," Joachim said. "He'd always ask you how you were, how business was. A wonderful man."
Patel had tried to draw more customers in recent months, adding a soda machine and a Western Union service.
"He had the energy of an entrepreneur," said Lavinia Wohfarth, owner of a Brookland art gallery and president of a neighborhood organization promoting business development along 12th Street. "He was doing okay, but he wanted to do a lot better."
Patel fended off the occasional thief, sometimes adding an extra worker to watch his door. "He had issues with kids shoplifting," said Craig Graves, manager of a nearby Pizzeria Boli. Graves described Patel as a good neighbor.
"When our freezer broke down, we used his," Graves said. "When we needed a handtruck to unload, he lent us his. It was more than a convenience store. When we went in there, he'd actually speak to us."
Graves offered his own help Sunday, allowing Patel's widow to use the pizzeria's fax machine to send out out her husband's death certificate.