SUMTER — For an immigrant from China, in need of a job to get him into the United States and start a new life, Sumter’s China Buffet must have seemed like the perfect match. He lived and worked among his fellow Chinese in the small Southern town, easing into a new country while sharing a house with other workers from the restaurant.
But for Guang Liang “Eric” Lin, his quest for the American Dream ended tragically, in a flash, when he was killed on the job during a violent armed robbery.
Years later, Sumter police detectives are still trying to solve the case, which seems as baffling as it is senseless. Two masked men burst into the buffet in the 800 block of Broad Street late on the evening of June 9, 2000, and shot the 28-year-old Lin dead while he was folding silverware on a dining-area table.
They also shot another man, manager Tong “Tony” Lin (no relation to the deceased victim), before fleeing the area in a dark-colored two-door Chevrolet or Pontiac.
Described as a mid-80s model, the getaway car was last seen in 2000 heading north on Wise Drive.
Only a handful of employees were still inside the restaurant at 11:30 p.m., closing up for the night, when the attack occurred.
“Tony was standing at the register with his back to the door with a big mirror in front of him,” said Senior Det. Tod Sims, who worked the case almost 14 years ago. “He said he looked up and saw these guys coming in putting bags over their heads.”
Tony Lin was shot six times by the robbers, but survived. Eric Lin was struck only once as the men moved into the dining room, but died still seated at his table. Two other employees managed to avoid the gunmen – one of them by hiding under a table – but none were able to give a clear description of the men, who wore black plastic bags with eye holes over their faces. One was reportedly 5 feet 8 inches tall, the other 5-foot-10-inches, and both weighed between 170 and 180 pounds.
“It was a bad scene,” Sims said. “It was just a really senseless, heartless act.”
First Sgt. Gene Williams investigated the killing at the time alongside Sims and is still handling the case today as the Sumter police officer assigned to the department’s “open and unsolved” cases. While the trail of the killers may seem cold, Williams strongly believes the men are still in Sumter and probably even speak about Lin’s killing openly.
Even all these years later, law enforcement still get tips and some rumors about the turn-of-the-century robbery. All that’s required to bring them to justice, Williams said, is help from the public to tie suspects to the crime.
“Anything they could tell us, any little thing, could help,” he said. “If they can remember passing by that night and seeing anything ... This case has been developed over the years, and I know there’s something out there that hopefully can be put together. But this case has not been forgotten.”
Investigating the killing at the time was complicated because, other than the manager, few of the restaurant’s employees spoke English, and most have since moved on, to China or elsewhere. But Sims doesn’t think an inability of the victims to communicate played into the gunmen’s motivation to target a Chinese restaurant.
“I think it was just a robbery,” he said. “They would have done this whoever was in there.”
This March 9, 2014 photo shows The China Buffet in Sumter, S.C. On June 9, 2000, two masked men burst into the buffet late one evening and shot Guang Liang "Eric" Lin dead while he was folding silverware on a dining-area table. Sumter police detectives are still trying to solve the case. (AP Photo/Bristow Marchant)×
Sgt. Gene Williams, "cold case" investigator with the Sumter Police Department, flips through the evidence file labeled the "China Buffet Murder." on March 9, 2014 in Sumter, S.C. On June 9, 2000, two masked men burst into the buffet late one evening and shot Guang Liang "Eric" Lin dead while he was folding silverware on a dining-area table. Sumter police detectives are still trying to solve the case. (AP Photo/Bristow Marchant)×