An elderly California liquor store owner who flipped the script on armed gunmen during an attempted robbery said Tuesday that he had no choice but to open fire on one of the assailants, insisting it was “either him or me.”
Craig Cope, 80, said he feared for his life as four would-be thieves drove up early Sunday to Norco Market & Liquor in Norco, where he was behind the counter when one of the assailants busted in with a rifle and yelled at him to freeze.
“I got a long gun pointing directly at me,” Cope told The Post. “It was either him or me and I was a little bit faster.”
Cope said he knew something was off when he saw a dark BMW SUV pull up alongside the store instead of into several nearby open parking spaces. They also “backed in” as they approached, which was another “red flag” for the quick-thinking owner.
“And then I saw them getting out of the car in masks and with guns,” Cope continued. “So, I figured what was going to happen. I just knew they were armed and masked and that they were coming in, so I was ready for them.”
At one point, three of the suspects jumped out of the SUV, while a fourth man stayed behind to act as a getaway driver, Cope said.
Surveillance footage from inside the store shows Cope firing the shotgun just seconds after the gunman announced the robbery, wounding the would-be robber in the arm.
“He was screaming that I shot his arm off,” Cope recalled. “That’s what he said.”
Cope, who suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital after the shooting, is recovering at his Riverside home.
He said he intends to keep working at the store, but may soon cut back on his hours. That has nothing to do with Sunday’s attempted heist, which he characterized as a “terribly isolated” incident.
“I’ll be a presence one way or another,” he said.
Cope first purchased the store in 1976 and ran it for 19 years before selling it. He then bought it back about seven years ago. He declined to say whether Monday’s incident marked the first time the store had been targeted by criminals.
“I’m not going to release that one,” Cope said, adding the store had not been robbed during his most recent ownership stint.
Norco in Riverside County is not known as a “high-crime area,” Cope said. Many of the city’s residents own horses and the community is largely conservative.
“It’s not a good area for robbers to come,” Cope said flatly. “Many of the homeowners are conservative and probably armed. These guys didn’t do their homework.”
Authorities tracked down the four suspects at a Southern California hospital, where one had a gunshot wound consistent with a shotgun blast, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Three suspects being held on $500,000 bond were identified as Justin Johnson, 22, of Inglewood, Calif., Jamar Williams, 27, of Los Angeles, and Davon Broadus, 24, of Las Vegas.
Sheriff’s officials praised Cope for preventing a “violent crime” while ensuring his own safety as he was confronted by multiple armed suspects.
Cope — who grew up in Illinois, where he hunted for food as a child — said he doesn’t regret his actions.
“It’s not going to be on my mind or keep me from doing anything,” he told The Post. “It’s not going to change how I operate. I’m already alert and pay attention to my surroundings at all times.”