Wounded community: Patrons, friends of Cheaha Country Store rally to help Thorson family carry on
by Jason Bacaj
Star Staff Writer
Jun 16, 2011 | 6963 views |  1 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An investigator walks out of the Cheaha Country Store in Cleburne County next to a memorial for 53-year-old store owner Joe Thorson. (Anniston Star file photo by Stephen Gross)
An investigator walks out of the Cheaha Country Store in Cleburne County next to a memorial for 53-year-old store owner Joe Thorson. (Anniston Star file photo by Stephen Gross)
CHULAFINNEE — Authorities have released the identities of two people charged with capital murder in the shooting death of a Cleburne County convenience store owner.

Christopher Ray Roberts, a 26-year-old Delta resident, and Dyna Marie Strickland, a 30-year-old Fruithurst resident, were arrested Tuesday and both charged with capital murder, according to a statement released by the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Department Wednesday morning, 42 hours after the shooting occurred.

Both are being held in the Cleburne County Jail after confessing to the shooting death of store owner Joe Thorson, 53. The statement made no mention of bond amount.

Roberts was a familiar face around the Cheaha Country Store, said Thorson’s son, Michael White Thorson. The 26-year-old came around “all the time” with his wife and children, Thorson said. The late shopkeeper even extended him a line of credit when Roberts was short of money.

After Roberts separated from his wife, however, the visits became less frequent, Thorson said. He believes that Roberts may have begun experimenting with methamphetamines, because the last time the Delta resident visited the store two or three weeks ago he was “tweaking like a son-of-a-(gun),” Thorson said.

Monday afternoon, Strickland dropped Roberts off on County Road 158 behind the store and he walked into the community business to commit what investigators describe as a premeditated crime. Dennis Green, chief investigator, declined to speculate as to the motive or to distinguish whether the robbery or murder was planned.

Deputies responded to a 911 call at approximately 2:20 p.m. Monday after a customer who stopped for gas found the store owner lying on the floor behind the counter with a gunshot wound, the Sheriff’s Department stated.

A regular customer pulled up at the same time the emergency call was made, said Leslie Perea, Thorson’s girlfriend. After a series of phone calls, Leslie and Thorson’s mother, Ann, made it to the store. Ann called Thorson, who was on his way already, set to relieve his father at 3 p.m.

Thorson initially thought his mother was calling to tell him to bring his father a hamburger, he said, leaning back in a chair at the store’s office Wednesday as he recalled discovering his father’s body.

“He was laying behind the counter face down,” Thorson said. “I went up to him, I was telling him to get up.”

Cleburne County Coroner Rudy Rooks pronounced Joe Thorson dead from a gunshot wound to the chest Monday at 4 p.m.

The sheriff’s department received information leading to the arrest of Roberts and Strickland Tuesday morning. Later that day, deputies took Roberts to the scene where he voluntarily retraced his steps from the store to the getaway car, Green said.

As Roberts fled with a couple hundred dollars, he ditched the gun in a wooded area behind the store. Members of the departmental investigative team and the Hollis Volunteer Fire Department lined up and combed the woods Wednesday to recover the weapon, Green said.

A semi-automatic handgun was found, bagged and sent off to the department of forensic sciences, Green said. He had not seen the weapon outside the evidence bag, but stated that it was possibly a .380-caliber.

Thorson opened the store Wednesday at 7 a.m., a couple of hours later than usual for a weekday. There’s comfort in routine and his father would have wanted him to keep the store open, he said.

He’s going to take on the family business. Thorson said his father had taken him under his wing after returning home from Mobile about five years ago. Taxes, licenses and other aspects of the business remain outside Thorson’s expertise, he admits. But he’s built a family here, fathering two children with Perea, and feels a responsibility to keep up the Cheaha Country Store.

“I got to step up,” Thorson said. “It’s going to be hard, (but) I got to do it for my mom.”

Security measures will be increased in the future, he said, to include bulletproof glass around the cashiers' counter and possibly a higher quality security camera system. The threat of a robbery had always been in the back of Thorson’s mind, given the store’s rural location and previous burglary attempts.

Store credit won’t be offered to any but a select few going forward. And the thickly muscled Thorson said he plans to collect all the money owed his father.

It was that sort of policy that endeared Joe Thorson to the community. He was always in a good mood, and it was a blessing to get to know him, said Tonia Spears, whose mother-in-law owned the store prior to the Thorson family.

She recalled one day when her oldest son, Lee, spoke with Thorson about a particular war movie he wanted to see. It turned out Thorson, an army veteran, didn’t carry it. But he called the next day, having bought the movie and brought a box full of other war movies the boy might have been interested in, Spears said.

“We have been robbed, we have been robbed,” said Spears, a lifelong Cleburne County resident. “I really don’t know how long it’ll take us as a community to repair.”

The community is working to mend the wound opened by a moment’s action. Three people stopped by the store to help Michael White Thorson and Perea unload, stock and price a shipment of groceries Wednesday morning.

“It’s hard on him being in there,” said Sharon Letson.

Stocking and pricing was usually something Thorson did with his father, she said. Letson was at the store because her brother, a Hollis firefighter, aided the search for the murder weapon. The shipment came around 9 a.m. and she, her brother and friend Shannon Ledbetter stayed for more than three hours, pitching in to ease the burden of a community landmark.

A candlelight vigil is scheduled for 8:30 Friday evening at the Cheaha Country Store, Letson said, noting that 75 people have already committed to attending on Facebook.

It’s a family business, open 366 days a year, Thorson joked. His mother pressed his father into purchasing the store around 2003, about seven years after he retired from the army at Fort Hood, TX, but it grew into more than a job for the ex-military man.

Joe Thorson was there for his community, letting folks down on their luck buy gas to get to work on store credit and watching over his regular customer’s kids at the store when need be — just like he was there for his son when his boy needed support and comfort as he moved from Mobile.

Sitting in the store’s cramped office, a fan pointed at his face, the 34-year-old Thorson said the last time he cried was when he had a diaper rash. Reaching for a small washcloth on a nearby shelf, he rubbed his cheeks and below his eyes before squaring his eyes ahead.

“I guarantee you this, though,” Thorson said. “When that pistol was pointed at my dad, there was no fear in him.”

Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546
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