10 years later: Indy convenience store shooting survivor, family continue push for enhanced safety in stores

Crime in Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS — A clerk shot while working an overnight shift at a Lawrence gas station is fighting for his life, while another clerk claimed he was beaten and shot at during a separate incident in Bloomington.

These recent incidents, which both happened Sunday, are a reminder of a shooting that left Marcy Birnell permanently injured and her family’s push for enhanced security measures for convenience store workers.

“It’s devastating to us because we know what it feels like first hand, said Perry Tole, Birnell’s brother-in-law. “Whenever we see this happening to somebody else it breaks our hearts.”

Birnell was shot by a 15-year-old boy during a robbery on Oct. 21, 2011 while she was working an overnight shift at a Village Pantry in the 1400 block of W. 86th Street on Indianapolis’ north side.

Birnell’s family said they were saddened to learn the news that a 22-year-old, who recently welcomed his first child into the world, is in a fight for his life after someone walked into a gas station early Sunday morning and shot him.

“It’s devastating. Every time it happens it just destroys you and you feel helpless. You feel the pain for these families. It just hits us all over again really,” said Tole. “We understand where they’re at now. We’re further down the line.”

There are several parallels between Birnell’s shooting and the shooting that injured the worker in Lawrence. Both were shot in the head and found suffering from their injuries by a customer who came into the store and called for help.

Although it was determined that the motive in Birnell’s shooting was robbery, investigators are still working to learn the reason for the shooting in Lawrence.

As the 10-year anniversary arrives of the shooting that Birnell survived but changed her life forever, her family promises they will never stop fighting for better safety protocols to protect workers.

“We would like for them simply to step up and provide some protections for the people like her [Marcy] and for this gentleman who is in such a serious situation, you know, struggling for his life with a newborn child,” said Tole.

Several times over the last decade, supporters of stronger requirements for convenience store security made pushes to change State Law, including State Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis).

Birnell’s family worked closely with DeLaney to pass legislation known as “Marcy’s Law”, which would have required all gas station convenience stores with a history of crime to install bulletproof plexiglass barriers to protect employees at the cash register. It also called for having more than one clerk present in a store.

Despite several attempts to get the bill through the legislature, Marcy’s Law never got a hearing during session.

“It’s very frustrating, very frustrating because it’s obvious that they’re [convenience stores] self serving. What they are looking at is the bottom line, the money part of it,” said Tole. “They don’t take into consideration the consequences that families like ours have to deal with.”

DeLaney called gas station and convenience store robberies and shootings “an ongoing problem” and added that he thinks it will take action in the legislature to help address it.

“We can reduce the incidents and respect these employees and pay them better and give them a bit more security,” said DeLaney. “I can’t guarantee a result but we can regulate in the direction of a better result.”

“You shouldn’t risk your life by going to the job especially a job that doesn’t pay very much,” DeLaney added. “This used to be a convenience store problem. Now it’s a dollar store and convenience store problem.”

DeLaney and other supporters of Marcy’s Law argue that the bill failed to receive a hearing due to strong lobbying by convenience store owners who didn’t want to pay the thousands it would cost to install bulletproof barriers.

“We’re just hoping that they would consider these people to be their front line,” said Tole. “These are the people that are facing the dangers on a daily basis to provide a profit for you.”

Scott Imus, executive director of the Indiana Food & Fuel Association, said they are disappointed to hear of recent incidents that involved clerks in Indiana and that he believes convenience stores across the state are taking the appropriate steps to the best of their abilities to protect their workers.

“Every incident is different unfortunately, and there’s really no solution I think that can address everything,” said Imus.

Imus said the most extensive research on the issue of bulletproof glass doesn’t support that it’s the strongest deterrent against convenience store robberies.

“With bulletproof glass, there’s lots of ways to get a clerk out of that enclosure,” said Imus. “They have to go to the restroom at some point, you can spill a soda and get them to get out of the enclosure.”

Imus said stores are encouraged to take steps to deter people from choosing a specific location, like increasing lighting and removing clutter from windows so there is visibility from the outside for people to see what is going on inside and for clerks to see who is coming into their store.

“The greatest deterrent, and I think a lot of our stores do this, is not have any money in cash register,” said Imus. “You’re not gonna be a target if you don’t have a whole lot of money in cash register.”

Imus said many store owners already focus on what he said are more effective security measures, like time-delay safes that remove money from cash drawers.

“What we tell our members based upon research is make sure there’s not an easy escape route. If you have a store that has bushes around them, don’t cut those down because it gives a robber a potential way to go in a back alley,” added Imus.

“No employer wants to go through — and I’ve been with employers who have gone through that. They don’t want to deal with a robbery, they don’t want to deal with losing one of their team members. They don’t want their team member injured.”

The conversation around convenience store safety heated up several times for those impacted by violence in convenience stores while DeLaney attempted to get the bill through the legislature.

Imus believes the issue is bigger than convenience stores and said that is where the solutions need to begin, not by enacting new laws.

“There’s not any great solution to solve this. As a society, we have to work on crime reduction solutions and people that know something need to say something,” said Imus.

“Many of my members give free coffee or soda to officers because they want them to stop by and they want them to have a presence in the store,” he added.

There are no current bills on the table that lawmakers are pushing to get a hearing on that relate to this topic, however, DeLaney, as well Birnell’s loved ones hope recent incidents will bring the conversation to the table again and encourage stores to take action individually.

“You might convince people to take a broader look at what we’re doing about worker safety,” said DeLaney.

“On a legislative level we might get nowhere with this, right, but as an individual business owner we would really like to see people step up and say ‘Okay, I’m gonna put these particular measures in place to protect my workers,’” said Tole.

He said Birnell’s particular store had a high number of robberies and she and her coworkers repeatedly asked for extra security measures to be put in place before the shooting but were denied.

Birnell’s family said they have advocated for this change not only knowing the impact her family has faced, but others who have been met with violence and those who have lost their lives while working in convenience stores in Indiana over the years.

“She’s one of the lucky ones because there are people who have died,” said Tole.

Life hasn’t always been easy for Birnell, however. She requires around-the-clock care and her sister has taken on the role of becoming her legal guardian so they can make sure she receives the care she needs.

“Marcy has lost her independence. We take care of her we make sure that you know she gets her meds. She’s on medications like three times a day,” said Tole. “She has lost her independence, her ability to be an individual living on her own, living her own life the way she wants to. That was taken away from her.”

On Oct. 21, 2021, Birnell will reach a major milestone. It will be the 10-year mark since the night that changed her life forever. She is especially grateful for one thing, in particular.

“I’m alive,” she said.

When asked what she plans to do to commemorate the anniversary of surviving her injuries sustained in the shooting, Birnell said she plans to golf.

“We love playing golf and we haven’t hurt anybody on the course just yet so we’ll probably keep doing that for a while,” Tole said as the two laughed.

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