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For a dozen years, a local couple ran a little bakery on Detroit's west side, building a loyal customer base and becoming a neighborhood fixture. There was a sense of community there, and people knew each other. Then one day a gunman walked in and changed everything. Up to that moment, the Shabazz Bakery, on Livernois Avenue just north of Seven Mile Road, was the culmination of years of hard work, the reward for long days its owner, Jabari Akil, spent pounding the pavement as an eager member of the Nation of Islam, dressed in a suit and tie, selling homemade bean pies on the streets of Detroit. For more than a decade, Akil says, things went well at the shop. "Our respect in the community is high. … In all the years we've been here we've not had one ugly incident, even when they have gone along the avenue and vandalized the businesses all down the avenue. They would vandalize up to this one next door, skip us, and go on to the next one. So there was this artificial sense of security that existed."
Akil and fellow Nation member Khalid Shabazz began baking bean pies in an east side house in 1996 and selling them one at a time, six days a week.
"We called it Shabazz Bakery but we didn't have a location," Akil says. "We started out at the house. I was going door to door, business to business, every day.
The pies, made from navy beans but sweetened with sugar and cinnamon, have a crust, a custard layer and a cookie-like topping. They're a fundraising staple among black Muslims, a food encouraged by the organization's founders over less-healthy soul food
"I had 45 pies every day," Akil continues. "I had two other guys with me and they had 45 each. You'd leave with the pies and come back with money.
Akil is a young-looking 50 years old, clean shaven, serious, sober. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Compton, his work in the restaurant and airline industries sent him to places like Houston, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where he met and married Ziamiah, 50. Along the way he found and joined the Nation, and moved to Detroit, where the organization began, to open a bakery
After a few months, Shabazz and the couple rented a vacated shop on Livernois, on what's sometimes referred to as the "Avenue of Fashion," a dense strip of shops that once shaped a swank shopping district in the city's heyday, but whose luster had faded. The space had been Ranier Pastry Shop since the '50s, catering to the then-Jewish neighborhoods nearby. Nearly half a century and a whole demographic change after it opened, it became a black Muslim pie shop. Inside you'd see large, framed photos on its walls of Nation founder Wallace Dodd Fard — who, in 1930, started the group in Detroit — his successor, Elijah Muhammad, and one of its most famous adherents, Muhammad Ali
Eventually, Shabazz moved on and the Akils took it over, but they kept the title Shabazz because it's a traditional bakery name in the black Muslim community — the name is, Muhammad told his followers, the ancient tribe from which black people descended. A few years ago, Akil added leather seats and contemporary furniture, stocked the room with a few books and newspapers, and provided a chess set, creating a coffeehouse atmosphere. Their slogan was "Home of the Mean Bean Pie.
Akil did the baking, his wife worked the counter. "She is the person customers come here and say, 'Where is my friend?' and don't know even her name," Akil says. "She is the one that everybody loves and everybody opens up to her. Everybody tells her their life stories.
That laid-back scene, where customers often came to hang out and talk over coffee or a chess game, ended Monday, March 31, last year
The couple had just returned to Detroit from a vacation, and took the day off work to stay home and wind down. And that's when what Akil characterizes as "a very negative series of coincidental events" created a nightmare.
The details of what happened next come from the couple, police reports and the detective assigned to the case
It was five to seven in the evening, just a few minutes before the doors would be locked for the day. Three employees were scheduled to be there. One of them, the manager, 35-year-old Aadil Zareen, hadn't arrived on time because his car wouldn't start
Zareen was born Derrick Keller but converted to Islam and changed his name. When he met Akil five years ago, he began following him to a local mosque on East Warren, where Akil has been a minister for "about five years." Akil quickly grew fond of him. "I was a mentor and a guide to him, so I knew the quality and caliber of man that he was," he says. Zareen began volunteering at Shabazz so he could hang around Akil, eventually earning himself a job there as a baker
Zareen called the bakery to tell co-workers of his car trouble, and another employee, a 33-year-old man whom the cops and the Akils refuse to identify out of fear for his safety — drove off to pick him up. When he arrived, his car broke down too.
That left one man, 57-year-old Malik Hakim, in the shop by himself
"One of the rules was that we never have anyone here alone," Akil says. "His instructions are if you ever get to the opening and there's nobody here, call me. He didn't call me, for whatever reason.
Hakim was another black Muslim who, like Zareen, was taken under Akil's wing. "He really wasn't working here," Akil says. "He was an old friend in need of help that I invited here. He needed something to do, so I let him come down to the bakery.
Storeowners on the strip had noticed a man walking up and down Livernois and peering into businesses. He looked to be in his early 20s, black with a light complexion, no more than 150 pounds on a 5-foot-9 frame. He wore a black skullcap and a black, three-quarter-length coat.
When he'd come across a store that hadn't yet closed for the night, he'd step in and ask employees strange questions, trying to learn the store's layout and test the staff. He was hunting for the easiest target to rob, the weakest of the bunch that night.
He walked into a nearby hair-care store and began his routine. The girl working must've intimidated him, because he left and headed up Livernois.
He came to Shabazz and looked in its plate glass windows. It was near enough to closing time that with a minute's difference the door might've been locked for the night. But it wasn't. The gunman walked in.
Hakim stood at the counter. There was no bulletproof glass, no door between the seating area and kitchen.
Of all the Shabazz workers, Hakim was the wrong employee to be there that night.
"He's highly educated, highly intellectual, no street sense," Akil says. "I don't think he's ever had a fight in his life, so there's nothing masculine that comes off of him, and this is Detroit — when you come across a situation where it looks like there might be a little aggressive activity going on, you have to throw on a certain armor. It's all mental, psychological, but you have to wear it, and he didn't have no sense of that idea."
The gunman decided he'd found an easy mark. He pulled out an automatic handgun, pointed it at Hakim and forced him into the kitchen at the back.
In the meantime, the two stranded Shabazz employees got one of their cars started and drove back to work. They parked at the bakery and walked in through the back door. The gunman suddenly found himself confronted by three workers. The sight rattled him. This was no easy robbery.
So he forced the employees to line up and face the wall. He moved first to Hakim and pressed the gun into his neck. "Where's the fucking safe?" he yelled. "I don't know," Hakim said.
Without hesitation, without further word, the gunman just pulled the trigger. The bullet ripped into Hakim's jaw and neck, and he collapsed to the floor.
The employee who'd gone for Zareen was facing the wall in fear. He didn't see what happened but he'd heard the conversation, heard the sudden shot, heard Hakim collapse in a heap. It was a do-or-die situation — now or never. So he turned quickly and sprang out through the open back door. He ran across Livernois to a nearby grocery store, where he called police.
What happened next isn't known for sure. Akil surmises that Zareen engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the suspect, wrestling for the gun. "There's a bullet that went through a piece of equipment going in that direction," he says, pointing downward, demonstrating the scenario.
If there was a struggle, the gunman won it. He shot Zareen once in his head, just behind his right ear. He died on the kitchen floor, face down in his own blood. Hakim lay nearby, seriously wounded but alive.
The gunman sprinted out the back door, up the narrow alley next to the bakery, turned north on Livernois, and vanished into the twilight.
After all that, after all the prowling, after shooting two people, the gunman vanished without any money. "Not a dime," Akil says. "The only thing he took was the life of my employee."
Police arrived and found the two victims on the kitchen floor. Zareen was dead on the scene. Hakim was on his back, conscious and looking up at police, trying to talk but unable to get words out.
The cops began combing the streets outside, searching for witnesses. A K-9 unit arrived, attempted to track the suspect, but didn't pick up a scent.
And that was it. Police reports were filed, a body was hauled to the morgue, and a wounded man was taken to the hospital. The city's murder tally for the year grew by one. The shooting merited only a few sentences in news briefs the next day.
Suddenly, the bakery had become a murder scene and it had no employees. So its stunned owners closed it down indefinitely, though Akil says he never considered giving up for good.
"The opposite," he says, remembering what he thought at the time. "I won't be run off. I'm not going to succumb to fear."
Several weeks later the couple's shock had waned and they reopened the bakery. But it was difficult. They had to walk the floors on which their friend bled to death.
Late last Fall, Akil was sitting in one of the bakery's leather seats, talking of how life had changed.
"My wife has just never been the same since," Akil said. "She can't hardly be comfortable here. For her, the randomness of it is an indicator she and we are very vulnerable."
Ziamiah Akil still worked the front counter, just as before. But she often wore a hat, a coat and gloves — despite heat from the ovens — with sunglasses hiding her eyes, as if she swaddled herself for protection, like a shield from the outside.
"It took me a long time to come in here," she said. "I stayed away for a while. Then I guess you'd say I could freak out — I would lock the door, and I'd watch everybody. You know, before things happen to you you're more relaxed. When things happen to you you're watching everyone."
She wanted to install bullet-resistant glass, the way so many restaurants in the city have done, but Akil wouldn't do it. He prided himself on the openness of the bakery, the sharing of space with visitors.
Some customers returned, but, after closing and reopening, after becoming a crime site, the bakery suffered.
"There was a drop in sales after what happened," Akil says. "It's cause and effect. I know an incident like that affects the community. I also know, immediately after the incident, we were closed for four to six weeks, and anytime the customers come to a business and you're not there, that affects the sales."
The bakery struggled in the months after the shooting, through summer and fall, through days that saw long spans between visitors, though a worsening economy that eventually got so bad the bakery's fragile foothold gave way. By winter, the couple knew it couldn't go on, and as the year ended, so did the store — brought down by a chain of events that began with the shooting.
"It took away my best person, and took away my other person, and then after that the people who had been working with me began to drift away, so to speak, as a result of the incident," Akil says. "It was difficult for them to continue with the same spirit and enthusiasm, and ultimately they faded away. I lost all my help and couldn't afford to replace them."
It's nearly a year after the shooting and no charges have been filed in the killing, and there are few leads to follow. The police got little help from eyewitnesses.
Investigators had visited Hakim in the hospital and judged him lucid and well-spoken, able to answer the personal questions they posed to test his mental state. Then they asked about the murder. "First question was, 'What do you remember?" Detroit Police Detective Keith Norrod says. Hakim's response? "Oh, I don't remember anything. My mind blocked it out to protect myself." Hakim recovered from his wounds and left the state soon after (attempts to locate him for this story were unsuccessful).
The two other witnesses — an employee from a nearby store and the anonymous employee who ran from the building before the gunman could shoot him — did not positively identify the shooter in a lineup of suspects arrested for similar robberies. Soon after the shooting, the unnamed employee moved on and fell out of touch, his identity withheld.
So Norrod keeps investigating, awaiting tips and for someone's memory to miraculously return. "I'm actively working on it," he says. "I don't let anything go."
But it could end up being just another unsolved murder in a city with a long backlog of them.
As the new year began, with snow falling softly outside, the Akils sat in their dismantled store in folding chairs, with blank expressions, pondering what had happened.
"Circumstances forced our hand," Akil says in a tone of resignation. "I should've made the decision to close six months earlier, but I thought to hold on."
Despite the grim situation, the couple won't give up the business. For now they're back where Akil started years ago, baking pies out of a home kitchen, delivering them in cars.
"It's as if I'm back at the beginning," he says.
This time, though, they've got an established customer base hooked on their desserts. Before leaving his old storefront for the last time, Akil left a note on the door, telling customers to call his cell phone, "313-303-3335," should they want Shabazz goods.
"Circumstances just didn't allow us to make it, man. But my enthusiasm and optimism is still there," Akil says, partly to himself. The couple plans on a comeback someday, in a bakery, renamed and reborn.
"It's not a matter of 'if' we open another store," he says, "but 'when.'"
Detroitblogger John scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.