Homeless man convicted in savage hammer attack

Miami store clerk Yui Kui Cen, in a wheelchair and unable to talk after a December 2011 hammer attack, in court Friday alongside his wife.
Miami store clerk Yui Kui Cen, in a wheelchair and unable to talk after a December 2011 hammer attack, in court Friday alongside his wife. David Ovalle

Yue “Alex” Kui Cen's mind is cognizant, his eyes alert.

But his body is limp, relegated to a wheelchair after a savage hammer attack left Cen in a coma for weeks, portions of his skull driven directly into his brain.

That did not stop Cen from silently watching Friday as prosecutors presented their case against the homeless man who bashed his head and destroyed his life during a store robbery in December 2011.

“He’s never going to be able to work again. He’s never going to be able to walk again. He’s never going to be able to talk again,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Karin Curtis told jurors Friday. “He’s never going to be able to tell anybody what happened.”

In the end, jurors learned enough to convict Rodobaldo Sanchez, 53, of the attempted murder of Cen, owner of the Alex Mini Mart in Little Havana.

His wife, Phong Cen, spoke for the family: "At least we got justice."

Sanchez faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in the coming weeks. He was also convicted of armed burglary and armed robbery in a savage attack that appalled even veteran Miami police detectives.

Sanchez was known to store owners, having previously stolen cigarettes from the market.

In December 2011, prosecutors said, Sanchez entered the store, grabbed two jugs of milk, placed them on the counter and then sprayed Cen's eyes with some sort of liquid.

In graphic surveillance video shown to jurors Friday, Sanchez then stormed behind the counter, hammer in hand. He repeatedly bashed in Cen's head before making off with a handful of cigarette cartons.

The circumstantial case proved overwhelming.

Sanchez’s fingerprint was found on one cigarette carton left in the mess behind the counter. Miami detectives also found the defendant owned a gray shirt that contained Cens’ blood and DNA.

His gray hat and bicycle also resembled ones used by the attacker shown on the video. Jurors also saw nine boxes of Marlboro cigarettes found on Sanchez similar to ones stolen from the store.

Defense attorney Damaris Del Valle attacked the science of fingerprint matches, saying the evidence proved nothing. “The state has not even come close to proving their case,” she said.

Jurors deliberated just over two hours before convicting him.

Cen himself could not testify. Instead, an associate medical examiner talked about the severity of his brain damage, presenting four boxes filled with medical records.

Prosecutor Santiago Aroca called it one of the most emotional cases he's ever been a part of.

Cen and his wife are immigrants from China and Vietnam. His wife still runs the mini-mart, caring for her husband, who is often present at store. She also raises their young two children.

"She is a true hero," Aroca said.