Decades later, crime echoes in survivor’s life

Bryant ArcherBryant Archer

By Donna Thornton/News Editor

Bryant Archer’s 17-year-old daughter wants to look for a job, and he can’t stand the thought of it.

Most of the jobs available to a 17-year-old now are like the one Archer was working when he was 17 on a night that changed his life forever.

Archer was one of four young people shot during a robbery on April 15, 1994 at Popeye’s in East Gadsden, and he was the only employee working that night to survive. Shot five times, he faced a long physical recovery and an emotional one that seems unlikely to end.

“I can’t sleep,” Archer said. “When I sleep I see things I don’t want to see.”

On that night in 1994, the restaurant had closed and Archer and a 17-year-old coworker were collecting garbage. As Archer got bags from the front, his coworkers was taking other bags out.

“By the time I was going to the door, they were coming back in,” Archer said. “They” were the coworker and two young men, faces covered with bandanas. The two other employees – an 18-year-old assistant manager and the 23-year-old manager – came around the corner.

“We all kind of met in one spot,” he said. The employees yielded to the robbers, doing as they asked, without challenge. After registers and the safe were opened, the two herded the employees into the freezer. Archer was first to go into the freezer. With everyone inside the door slammed shut, leaving them in the dark.

“It might have been 30 seconds,” he said. “I sat down. I’d just sat down when the door opened again.

“I heard the gun blast and my ear drum burst. I couldn’t hear anymore, my ears were just ringing.” Archer doesn’t know what led him to sit down in the freezer. His coworkers did not.

“I wonder if that made a difference. If I hadn’t sat down, would it have been much worse,” he questions.

Archer would be wounded five time, in the left arm, the shoulder, neck and jaw, breaking several teeth. A bullet hit his right arm after passing through one of the other victims.

With the robbers gone, Archer made his way out of the freezer, stepping over his coworkers to get to the office and call for help. He said he heard the police forcing their way in the front door of the restaurant. He had lain with his feet sticking out of the office so they would know he was there.

The police asked questions, he said, but he does not remember what he told them. Archer does remember what would be the break in the case: though their faces were covered with bandanas, he recognized the distinctive haircut of one of the young men – a 16-year-old who had worked at the restaurant for a while. The side of his head was shaved, Archer said, and he was able to see that above the bandana. He apparently gave police Cuhuatemoc Hinricky Peraita’s name, and they were able to find an address for him from a paycheck he’d not picked up.

Gadsden police put out information about the crime and within hours, Rainbow City police stopped a car carrying Peraita and Robert Bryant Melson, a 22-year-old Gadsden man.

The two were convicted of capital murder and Melson, identified by Peraita as the shooter, received a death sentence. Peraita received a life sentence, but committed a murder in prison that has since put him on death row.

In the years since, Archer feels most people have moved on with their lives after the crime that made headlines across the country and in others, that they don’t really remember what happened. The families of those who died, he said, still must deal with their loss – three people wrongly taken from their families, who still appear to Archer in his dreams.

“Sometimes they’re alive and I’m dead,” Archer said of his dreams. “Sometimes we’re playing cards.”

Archer says his children and his wife have probably had a harder time than him dealing with the aftermath of the crime, doing without things he can’t provide, because he’s not able to find and keep a job.

When people learn about his injuries, they think he’s too much of a liability to their health and workman’s comp insurance. Some jobs he’s had proved to physically demanding, because of the injuries he received.

There were funds available to Archer as crime victim, but during the time he was eligible to seek them, the company he’d worked for paid his medical bills. When the stopped, the time limit had passed on crime victims’ assistance, he said. The medical bills did not.

Despite his fears at the thought of his daughter behind the counter at a fast food restaurant, he can’t say he’ll forbid his daughter seeking a job. “Kids are expensive,” he said.

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