SALISBURY — In his first court appearance since being charged with murdering a west Rowan convenience store owner during a robbery Monday, the accused gunman made a request of the judge.
“Will you just tell his family I’m sorry,” Christopher Lee Watson told District Court Judge Beth Dixon on Thursday.
Dixon told Watson he needed to speak with his attorney.
All three suspects in the shooting of Hecham Abualeinan, the owner of Z&H Mart on Mooresville Road, appeared consecutively on a closed-circuit television feed from the adjacent Rowan County jail.
All three were given court-appointed attorneys. All are scheduled to be in court for a probable cause hearing on Jan. 9.
And investigators say they could face charges in other recent robberies.
Of the three, 23-year-old Watson appeared the most emotionally distraught. He wiped tears on the sleeves of his orange jailhouse jumpsuit as deputies led him away following his appearance.
Maurice Alexander Robinson, 33, and Kevin Lamont Canzator, 20, the two men who investigators say made a purchase and left Z&H Mart just seconds before the gunman entered, also told the judge they needed court-appointed attorneys.
Because each suspect could face the death penalty, the suspects were assigned provisional attorneys, but trial attorneys will be assigned later.
Robinson told the court he was blind and couldn’t see the judge. Dixon told him she had seen him before in her court and he should be familiar with the proceedings.
He leaned toward the microphone with his left ear, his arms folded, and seemed unfazed by the seriousness of the charges.
Canzator, on the other hand, seemed stunned and spoke quietly in short answers.
The three men will spend the holidays in jail without bond.
Sultan Qasem, owner of Neighborhood Market on West Horah Street, said police have told him the gun used to kill Abualeinan may be the same one pointed at him twice in the last month.
A gunman wearing a mask robbed Qasem on two separate nights, once in November and again last Wednesday.
They emptied the register, he said, and took cigars and cigarettes.
“He took my phone, too,” Qasem said. “A Blackberry phone.”
During each robbery, he was afraid, Qasem said. But last week he thought he was going to die.
“He almost did it,” Qasem said, referring to the masked gunman.
Qasem said the man pointed the gun at his head when he put one hand behind his back.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Several investigators confirmed to the Post Thursday that at least two of the suspects charged in Abualeinan’s death are also expected to be charged in the Horah Street robberies.
Pointing at the front page of the Post, Qasem said he recognized one of the men.
The suspect pretended to be a customer, he said, and lay on the floor of his business when the gunman entered.
“I recognized that one,” he said, “the other one had a mask that covered his face.”
Qasem said he sympathizes with the Abualeinan family, who found the 59-year-old dead from a gunshot wound to the head Monday night.
“I was so sorry for him,” he said.
Investigators said the murder was part of a robbery, and that Watson had ridden with Robinson and Canzator to the store.
Until now, according to the N.C. Department of Corrections online database, Watson’s criminal record consists only of misdemeanors including break-ins and larceny. He’s served three months in prison.
Robinson has served more than three years and has been convicted of 30 offenses, including 10 felonies. He was convicted in 1994 of robbery with a dangerous weapon. In 2011, he was convicted of felony larceny, felony breaking and entering, and felonious restraint.
A?search of the Department of Corrections’ website for Canzator did not return results.
Detectives said the case remains open and anyone with information is asked to contact the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office at 704-216-8700 or Crime Stoppers at 1-866-639-5245.