Gas Station Attendant Assassination

I would have always assumed that late-night gas station attendant is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Why else would all that Plexiglass be there? But every list I find of most dangerous jobs is loaded with resource extraction (logging, fishing, oil) or transportation (trucking, small-plane pilot). So maybe statistics don’t back up the stereotype, or maybe not enough people have watched the episode of The Wire where it explains how the Plexiglass will only stop a low-caliber bullet.

But if you browse a lot of crime news aggregators like I do, you’ll find that those resource extraction or transportation job deaths are almost entirely accidental: nobody’s dropping logs on you on purpose. When it comes to murder, “cashier” comes right behind “taxi driver” and “manager” on the list of dangerous jobs. This site has some terrible graphs on the subject, and it doesn’t break out “cashier” by type of service: the #3 ranking includes, say, fast-food cashiers as well as gas station attendants. Still, 42 murders is a lot; and this doesn’t touch on the number of gas station attendants who are victims of violent threats as part of robberies, or of attempted murders. People working late night at the service station are taking a much higher risk than most.

Most of these murders, however, are matters of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: the attendants are murdered because it’s convenient, or because they’re in the way of the quick cash, or perhaps because they valiantly but unwisely decided to defend their turf. Few if any of them are deliberately targeted for who they are, rather than what or where. Which is what makes this story jump out:

Police say a man working at a DeKalb County [metro Atlanta] gas station was shot and killed early Monday morning.

Harry Wells was devoted to his family and customers at the convenience store, where he’s worked for many years.

A man entered the store around 4:30 a.m., pulled a gun and shot the 54-year-old clerk in the torso.

A worker, who wished to remain anonymous, described what he saw on the security camera video.

“The guy is coming from outside. The window is open and he shot him and left. That’s all I saw on the camera,” the employee said.

The worker told Channel 2’s Tom Regan it was not a holdup but possibly an act of anger or revenge.

Now, in deference to the feelings of Mr. Wells’ family and friends, I’m not going to speculate on why he was targeted. He was clearly well-loved and will be missed.

But as a crime fiction writer, the story is intriguing. When the homicide detectives come into a late-night gas station scene, they’re going to work it as a robbery gone bad. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they’re going to be right. Sometimes, however, the hoofbeats are zebras, not horses, and thus do episodes of House or good crime stories get made.

In the story, we’ll stick with the avatar of Mr. Wells continuing to be a well-known good guy, but make the security cameras more ambiguous, or rather less ambiguous from the detectives’ point of view. It’s going to look like the all-too-typical story of dude coming in looking for free Swisher Sweets and plugging the attendant, so that’s what the detectives will go with. Imagine them being fatigued or stressed about something else and viewing this case as by-the-numbers. Only indirectly will they start to sort out that there’s something else going on: the robber doesn’t actually take anything, or a second-tier friend of the attendant comes forward with what seems at first like uninformed speculation, etc. Once they begin to treat the homicide as an assassination do things become more clear and their interest less cursory.

So, the trick to writing a good story is to make things link up: what about the victim and the perpetrator makes the gas station the right place to carry off the killing, other than the convenience of being able to disguise it as a robbery?