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West Philly grocer recounts deadly shootout with masked robber

West Philly Grocery store owner Elvis Nunez talks about surviving a deadly robbery at his store

Grocer Elvis Nuñez, 53, demonstrates four days later how he had defended himself in a fatal shootout with an armed robber March 14, 2014.
Grocer Elvis Nuñez, 53, demonstrates four days later how he had defended himself in a fatal shootout with an armed robber March 14, 2014.Read moreMensah M. Dean

Shortly before Elvis Nuñez had a chance to close his store last Thursday, putting another 7:30 a.m.-to-9 p.m. shift behind him, a man wearing a black facemask burst through the door of his 54 & Wyalusing Food Market and pointed a handgun at him.

“I opened the register and was counting the money, but the guy in the mask took one shot at me right away,” said Nuñez, 53, who dodged the bullet and drew his handgun from his left hip holster. The gunman doubled back to the front door, still pointing his gun at Nuñez, who opened the register area’s acrylic glass door and fired a bullet into the would-be robber’s abdomen.

The gunman ran about 10 feet from the store’s front door, turned, and fired again at Nuñez, who remained at the front door of the store on the southwest corner of Wyalusing Avenue and Conestoga Street, he said. The gunman then ran east on Wyalusing to the intersection with 54th Street, where he fired two more shots, said Nuñez, who slammed the front door and summoned police.

Police took the gunman — who still had not been publicly identified as of noon Tuesday — to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 11 that night. A Police Department spokesperson said he was not able to say if the shooting was still under investigation or if it had been determined to be a justifiable homicide.

In a city where just 25 percent of armed robberies result in arrests and the homicide rate ticked up 11 percent last year, Nuñez, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1993, survived by inches.

“It was the only way I could stay alive with my family,” Nuñez said. “It was going to be me or the person.” He said he didn’t want to shoot anyone or carry a gun, “but there are a lot of bad people in Philly and I have to protect my family and I have to protect myself.”

He had come to the U.S. seeking a better life, he said, had opened his store about 10 years ago with help from family members, and works seven days a week to help fund his goal of seeing all five of his children graduate from college. His oldest, a 26-year-old daughter, graduated from Immaculata University in Chester County and now works as a nutritionist, he said.

“I didn’t have the chance to go to college,” he said. “So I want all my kids to have that chance. Working here is the only way to make sure my children get a good education.”

Nuñez’s family and friends celebrated his survival and praised him as a soft-spoken pillar of the community who frequently gives customers free food when they are low on cash. Regulars call him “Papi” and say he would never shoot anyone unless in self-defense.

“Papi, I know if he had to shoot somebody, he had to do it,” said Qiana Grant, 36, who said her daughter was in the store during the shooting and lost her slippers running for safety.

“Papi is a nice guy, very easygoing,” said Grant, a certified nursing assistant. “There’s times I come down here with nothing. If you just talk to him, you get what you need. He’ll help you feed your kids. He’s cool for the neighborhood. He’s been around here for years, watching my children grow up and a lot of other people’s children grow up.”

It was not the first time Nuñez has stared down the barrel of a gun, he said. In 2010 he survived a shootout with two gunmen. In 2016 a gunman stole $500 when his wife was behind the register of their store.

“Every time you hold your breath and it’s a really scary experience," said his son, Kelvin, a senior at a Catholic school who turns 17 Friday and plans to study creative writing in college.

“I’m just saddened that some people have to resort to these types of things, and be in gangs, and rob stores. When your parent is the one the gun is being pointed at, you don’t wish that on anyone else,” added Kelvin, who earlier this year participated in The Inquirer’s annual Acel Moore High School Journalism Workshop.

Nuñez said he feels bad that the gunman lost his life, and praised the police for whisking him to the hospital. He advised those with thoughts of arming themselves and robbing someone to take another path.

“It’s a big mistake. You put yourself in danger, you put somebody else in danger, and you can go to the jail. Go to the classroom. You are living in the U.S.A. I come from a poor country. Everything is different over there. You have opportunity here,” he said.

"You will see that you can survive honestly and good. Stay out of the gun problem, the drugs, the alcohol. Focus on yourself and your family.”