By Ethan Forman
MIDDLETON — Stephen Cornell didn't think about his family or his job when he looked through the glass door at JC Grill & Pizza on Wednesday night and saw a man pointing a black handgun at the owner inside.
"I just reacted," said Cornell, 55, a regular customer at the convenience store. "I said, 'OK, I'll just wait,' and when he tries to come out of the store, I was going to jump him. He just came out so fast I tripped him, and he tripped me and I fell, and he fell."
Cornell, who has a prosthetic leg and recently underwent shoulder surgery, said he actually intended to tackle the suspect, not trip him.
"He stumbled and fell, and God, when I was on the ground I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, the next thing you know, he's going to shoot me.'"
In the meantime, convenience store owner Edson Andrade had come around the counter and ran outside to help.
The suspect, whom police identified as Eric F. Homen, 23, of 7 Raymond Circle, Peabody, got up and fled with the pistol, which turned out to be an air-powered pellet gun, police said.
"He was shooting, and he was firing the BB gun at (Andrade)," Cornell said.
Turning to shoot forced Homen to slow down, Cornell said, and Andrade, who was not hit by the pellets, tackled the suspect, pinning him in a headlock. Cornell stepped on Homen's legs, and the men took his gun and subdued him, Andrade said.
The suspect pleaded with his captors to let him go and gave back the money, $98, according to police.
"He had him in a chokehold all the way back to the store," Cornell said.
When police arrived, they found Andrade and Cornell on top of Homen. They arrested the suspect and charged him with armed robbery while masked and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Arraigned in Salem District Court yesterday, Homen pleaded not guilty and was held without bail.
After his arrest, a "nervous" Homen agreed to talk to police, but in a videotaped interview, he claimed he could not recall what happened at the store, according to court papers. Homen said he was driving around Peabody, smoking marijuana, and recalled passing Richardson's Ice Cream on Route 114. Then, he said, he "blacked out" and didn't remember anything else.
Homen's parents were in court yesterday but declined to comment.
'Everything they tell you not to do'
Both Cornell and Andrade said they didn't think the gun was real. Still, in hindsight, Cornell, a father of two teenagers and a 32-year employee at Eastman Gelatine, said tripping an armed suspect wasn't the smartest move. After the incident, Cornell called his wife, Linda, and told her he helped stop a robbery.
"She said, 'You did everything they tell you not to do," Cornell said. "I don't know. I reacted first and didn't think."
Andrade is a 36-year-old father of two who lives in Saugus. He was closing up around 8:50 p.m. when the suspect, with a shirt covering his face, walked in with the gun, the shop owner said.
"I looked down, and he has the gun in front of me," Andrade said. At first, he thought it was a joke. "I thought it was not real, but you don't want to take any chances, you know what I mean?"
The suspect demanded $300, he said, but Andrade said he didn't have that much and told the man to just walk out. His sister, Rozane, was in the kitchen and didn't know what was happening.
"I look outside, and I saw Steve," Andrade said. He threw the money at the suspect, and the man fled.
Police Chief James DiGianvittorio agrees that perhaps Cornell and Andrade should have used more caution.
"On a case like this, where it's a fleeing felon, you really don't want people to corner a person like that because you don't know what they are capable of doing," he said. "You are lucky it worked out the way it did. ... If it was a real gun, we would be dealing with two deaths right now."
Nonetheless, the chief plans to bring Cornell, Andrade, and responding officers Adam Maccini and Robert Currier to the next selectmen's meeting so he can give the civilians citations of bravery and the officers letters of commendation.
Cornell, who has lived in Middleton since 1990, is a regular at the convenience store at 323 N. Main St. (Route 114), which is a short walk from his Piedmont Street home.
He grew up in Malden and lost his leg in 1968 at age 12 while trying to jump on a freight train, disobeying the warning of his mother after he'd attempted the stunt a few days before.
"I saw the train going by again, and I had a race with a bunch of friends, and I guess I didn't run alongside of the train, I just ran straight at it."
Cornell missed the train, and it ran over his leg.
He remembers pulling his leg off the railroad tracks and backing away. Someone in a nearby lumberyard heard his screams.
"They just kept on asking my name, address, telephone number, parents; I was in a state of shock at that point."
Cornell recalls Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski visiting him in the hospital. Cornell mistook Yaz for Tony Conigliaro, another popular Sox player from the Impossible Dream season.
"At 12, I still had no fear and wouldn't believe in what the doctors told me — I couldn't ride a bike, and I couldn't play sports. I don't accept 'no' that easily."
Cornell remains upbeat despite his setback as a kid. His prosthetic leg sports a Patriots sticker on the thigh, and he calls it "Mr. Patriot" for his love of the team.
"So many people have helped me out with my injury and leg," Cornell said, reflecting yesterday on his actions Wednesday night. "It's just nice to return the favor to someone else."
"The good people, they come through in situations like this," Andrade said. "I told him, you save the day, I buy you dinner."
Staff writer Julie Manganis contributed to this report.
Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.