No working surveillance cameras at Gold & Silver Trading Center during Stephen Toms' death

Upchurch says he found Toms dead with loaded gun next to him

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 18, 2011 

Police have no video surveillance of the fatal shooting of Stephen Earl Toms, the manager of the Gold & Silver Trading Center who was found dead in the store on Wednesday morning.

That’s because the Gentian Boulevard business had only “dummy cameras” put there to make visitors think the store was under surveillance, said the owner, Robert Upchurch Jr., during a 30-minute interview on Thursday.

Upchurch said he found Toms, 63, lying in the kitchen with a loaded, cocked handgun next to him. The gun appeared not to have been fired.

Upchurch said he believes Toms, an avid hunter, was killed trying to defend himself. “Steve always told me, he said, ‘I’m never going to be taken in a back room to be taped up,’” he said.

As a result of the shooting, Upchurch said he plans to beef up his security, installing functioning cameras and forbidding employees to work alone in the store.

“I want customers to feel comfortable,” he said. “Ninety percent of our business is buying gold, and we’re going to continue doing it.” He did not say when he plans to reopen. A custodial service was cleaning the store on Thursday afternoon.

Columbus police say Toms was shot multiple times, and they’re investigating the death as a homicide, though they say the motive is unknown. It is the 13th homicide in Columbus this year.

Upchurch said he stepped inside his store at Gentian Boulevard and Reese Road about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday morning, more than an hour before its scheduled opening. The door was unlocked, an oddity for that time of day, and Upchurch called out to his manager, he said.

Then he saw the empty cash tray sitting on a display counter.

“And I looked around the corner of the office, and he was laying on the floor,” Upchurch said. “You see your best friend laying on the floor -- I was just in shock. I can’t even describe it.”

Upchurch, who said the front door was undamaged, believes the shooting happened between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Tuesday night, based on the fact that Toms’ daughter had a phone conversation with her father at 5:33 p.m., and that the jewelry was still on display when Upchurch entered the store the following morning.

Someone always secures the merchandise in a safe about 15 minutes before the 6 p.m. closing, Upchurch said.

In addition to the missing cash, about $8,000-$10,000 in chains was missing from a display case, Upchurch said, though more jewelry sat undisturbed on an adjacent shelf.

Upchurch and Toms are known for local television commercials in which they encourage people to bring their broken gold and silver jewelry to the “little white house” and exchange it for cash.

The commercials have been pulled off the air.

The two men met about 30 years ago, when Toms was selling some jewelry and remarked that he’d like to get into the business.

Later, Upchurch needed a manager and thought of Toms. It was a wise decision, he said.

“He handled my money, his boss’ money and his boss’ product like it was his own,” Upchurch said. “He didn’t throw money around.”

In 1992, Toms got an offer to work at antique trunk shows for Service Merchandise, and Upchurch said he couldn’t compete with the wages the larger business paid.

But in 2001, Upchurch was standing outside the little white house on an overcast day. He needed a new manager and didn’t know what to do.

As he remembers it, the clouds shifted and a sliver of sunshine broke through.

Toms appeared.

“I asked, ‘What are you here for?’” Upchurch said. “He said, ‘I need a job.’

“Hired,” Upchurch responded.

Upchurch said someone could tell one of Toms’ jewelry displays just by looking at it.

“He was at the top of his craft,” he said. “The very top. He can’t be replaced. I want him to be honored for how good he was.”

In the commercials, the men say they have “cold, hard cash” for their jewelry. Upchurch knows the store has a high profile but said he doesn’t intend on shutting down his store because of the shooting.

Toms wouldn’t have wanted that, he said.

“I’m dedicating whatever time I have in this business -- I’m dedicating it to his memory,” Upchurch said. “He was not a quitter.”

Toms’ sister, Sandra Whitehurst, said her brother always talked about owning a bar. In June, Toms bought the Shanty Shack on Warm Springs Road and changed its name to Duffys.

Duffys’ Facebook page states that the bar, which closed Wednesday and Thursday, will reopen today.

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