Salisbury man will spend life in prison for the 2012 murder of convenience store owner

Published 11:54 pm Monday, January 5, 2015

A Salisbury man will spend the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty Monday to the 2012 murder of Z&H Mart owner Hecham Abualeinan.

Christopher Lee Watson had faced the death penalty if convicted at trial.

Watson was also convicted Monday during a short hearing of three counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon. Two of the robberies, investigators said, occurred at the Neighborhood Market on Horah Street before Abualeinan, 59, was killed at his Mooresville Road business.

Watson was escorted into court in handcuffs and leg shackles. The 25-year-old appeared calm throughout the hearing until visiting Superior Court Judge W. David Lee asked if he wanted to speak. Watson then became emotional and apologized to Abualeinan’s family, who were not present in court.

Watson will not have the possibility of parole. Two others charged in the killing — Kevin Lamont Canzator, 22, and Maurice Alexander Robinson, 35 — remain in the Rowan County Detention Center awaiting trial.

Canzator and Robinson are each charged with first-degree murder and three counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Judge Lee explained to Watson that the maximum punishment he could’ve received for a conviction on the first-degree murder charge was the death penalty. The maximum time in prison Watson could’ve served for the three robbery charges was a total of 51 years.

Rowan District Attorney Brandy Cook told the court Watson was brought in for questioning by law enforcement for his involvement in the Neighborhood Market robberies, which occurred Nov. 22 and Dec. 5, 2012.

Watson took a break during the police interview and Cook said that’s when he broke down and admitted to the  Z & H Mart robbery and to shooting the owner.

Watson initially told Salisbury Police detectives he went into the store wearing a Halloween mask and demanded money.

Robinson’s girlfriend, Ashley Dawn Bentley, now 29, was charged with involvement in the Nov. 22 robbery. Her case is still pending.

Hecham Abualeinan’s family lived behind the store at 3610 Mooresville Road, across from its intersection with Neel Road. His daughter, who was 15 at the time, told authorities she heard her father yell, “Get out, get out!” before she heard gunshots.

Investigators determined one “warning” shot was fired into the air and another struck the business owner in the side of the head. He died instantly.

Robinson and Canzator told investigators they saw themselves in the newspaper and on the news and decided to turn themselves in.

Authorities released surveillance video images of the incident, which showed Watson shoot and kill Abualeinan and then step over him and make his way to the cash register.

The video showed two men authorities identify as Canzator and Robinson enter the store, buy candy and then leave. About 11 seconds later, Watson walks into the store wearing a hoodie, a mask and gloves and wielding a handgun.

After the robbery, investigators said, the three men drove to a home off Grace Church Road where they paid the homeowner in in marijuana to let them burn the clothes they were wearing.

Canzator initially told investigators he did not know Watson, but later admitted that he did.

Cook, the district attorney, read a letter rom Abualeinan’s wife, who wrote to say she could not bring herself to attend the hearing. She was scared and distraught, the letter said.

“This man took the life of my husband and the father of my two children,” she wrote in the letter.

The letter said Abualeinan’s wife agreed to the plea arrangement and didn’t wish what happened to her family on anyone.

Watson said he didn’t want the Abualeinans to go through a trial and, although he couldn’t undo what he’d done, he was admitting his guilt.

“I want to apologize to the community and to his family,” Watson said through tears.

“I know what I did is really terrible,” he said.

Watson’s mother, Michelle, and other members of his family were inside the courtroom for the sentencing.

Following the hearing, Michelle Watson said she felt terribly sorry for Abualeinan’s family but also feels a sense of loss.

“I hope she will one day find it in her heart to forgive my son,” Watson said of Abualeinan’s wife.

Michelle Watson said there’s more to the story and all will be revealed when Robinson and Canzator go to trial.

She said her son is more of a follower and the shooting was not in his nature. Watson said Abualeinan’s death gives her son nightmares and he regrets “pulling the trigger.”

Christopher Watson has a young daughter who will never see him outside of prison walls. Michelle Watson said the girl’s mother has explained the situation best way she can to a young child.

“She said, ‘What he’s done is a bad thing, but he’s not a bad person,’ ” Michelle Watson said.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.