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Sun shines through the corner window of the two-month-old deli and lights up the canary yellow walls. It’s Fish Fry Friday, and a pair of women pull up to the counter window to dig into styrofoam containers overflowing with fried whiting, green beans, mac and cheese, and corn bread. Dr. Oz flashes from the flatscreen TVs overhead, while general manager Anitra White, manning the cash register, talks up the display case of homemade sweets.
Behind her, chef and owner Donte Beal is stationed at the flat-top grill under a neon “MMMM… TOASTY” sign he salvaged from a Quizno’s that went out of business. Photos of his sandwiches have been taped to the walls, next to a mural of the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol building, Atlas District, Anacostia’s Big Chair sculpture, and Hae Soon “June” Lim.
Most people would want to cover up all trace of what happened to Lim here. Violent crimes, after all, aren’t great for business. But Beal has taken a different approach. He commissioned the mural of the victim’s face on the wall and named a crab cake and shrimp sandwich with “heaven sauce” after her. Beal’s tribute to Lim is even in his deli’s name: Heaven & H.
* * *
June Lim arrived at what was then Grace Deli around 5:30 a.m. on June 14, 2012, much like she did nearly every day for the previous eight years. Moments later, street surveillance video showed, a man later identified as Steven Williams approached the deli. Stevens was a convicted robber and occasional customer of Grace Deli who knew Lim, but on this particular morning he was there to rob her. Williams killed the shop owner with a single shot to the back of her neck and grabbed money from the cash register. Police found her body 45 minutes later. Williams’ lawyer would later say that the killer needed money to fund his drug habit. Lim was two weeks shy of her 66th birthday and three months away from the birth of her first grandchild.
As news of her death spread, Grace Deli became a shrine. People from all over the neighborhood left stuffed animals, flowers, photos, and messages along the deli’s metal grates. Neighbors organized a candlelight vigil. “She was like a mother,” says Scotty Sherman, who attended church near Grace Deli and helps provide the desserts for Heaven & H along with her daughter. “Everybody would call her Mama June…I’d heard a lot about her even before I met her. For this to happen, it just kind of devastated everybody because she was a fixture in this community.”
William’s DNA was later found at the scene. Last April, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and in June, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
* * *
Beal met June Lim while working at Ultra Style Unisex Salon, the barbershop next door to Grace Deli, in 2006. Every day, he visited the shop to grab a bite to eat or play lotto. If he didn’t have money one day, she’d let him pay later. If he brought in his son, she’d give him free candy. Sometimes she’d even play his lottery numbers for him and set the tickets aside.
“She was a really nice lady and she helped a lot of people. She would help those who she felt were sincere,” he says. “She went with the flow. She knew me, I knew her. It was kind of like a family.”
At the time of her death, Beal no longer worked at Ultra Style, but he came down to Grace Deli anyway where crowds of regulars were leaving tributes as TV cameras hovered. “People were just in shock like, ‘We can’t believe it, like, they actually killed June. Why would they do that to her?’” he says.
But Beal wasn’t completely shocked that a crime like this occurred. He’d seen this story many times before. Now 35, Beal grew up in Eastgate Gardens, a housing project off Benning Road SE that was demolished in 2000. “It was a good community turned bad,” Beal says. “Like really, really bad. One of the worst housing projects in this city.” Drugs and violent crime were heavily embedded in the culture around him, Beal says, and he knew countless people—“too many to name”—who fell victim to drug-related death or murders, including one of his best childhood friends.
Beal got into alcohol and drugs as a teenager and has struggled with drug use off and on throughout his life. He was incarcerated for about nine months in 1999 for selling drugs. After that, he started a pre-dentistry program at Montgomery College in Silver Spring on a grant but got expelled after getting into a fight with another student. Old temptations returned, and Beal was locked up for another two months in 2005, again for selling drugs.
“I couldn’t advance in selling drugs because of where my heart was with God,” Beal says. “I made a lot of money selling drugs, but I always lost it.”
What ultimately pulled him away from that life was a combination of his growing faith and the birth of his son, now 5, who he’s raised by himself. “That really sealed the deal,” he says. “Once my son was born, I had no more room for mistakes.”
After being rejected from countless jobs because of his criminal record, Beal began taking any free classes he could find. “I just wanted to accumulate as many good things on my resume as I could so people would overlook my past,” he says. He entered a barbering vocational program and then a culinary arts program at D.C.’s adult education school, Ballou STAY. At the time, Beal didn’t have any intention of actually going into the food industry: “I just viewed it as I’m getting a piece of paper, and I’m going to put it with the rest of my pieces of paper, so whenever I do go look for a job, I can show them something.”
Beal graduated from the culinary arts program the same month Lim was killed, with his sights set on opening a food truck. To help fund the venture, he and Anitra White (now the Heaven & H general manager) prepared chicken and seafood salad and drove around in a van selling the stuff from coolers to workers at beauty salons, nursing homes, and schools.
The landlord of Grace Deli also owned the building that housed the barbershop where he’d previously worked, which is how Beal learned that it was up for lease. To him, the opportunity to have a storefront, an upgrade from a food truck, was a blessing within a tragedy. “I really think that God reserved this spot for me so that I can build my life so that I can have a reason not to go back to selling drugs.”
Beal says he also prayed on the name of the deli. Heaven & H represented his journey—he felt the deli was heaven-sent—and honored June, who he hoped was looking down from heaven. He also decided to put a mural on the wall in her honor. “It’s always important just to remember people who made a good impact in the community,” he explains.
Beal hasn’t been able to get in touch with Lim’s family. He doesn’t know how to contact them, or if they’re even still in the area.
But I was able to track down Lim’s son, Pete Lim. Now 38, he lives in Rockville and had no clue about Heaven & H until I reached out to him.
“It was just so unexpected to hear anything about the place,” Pete Lim says. “I’m a little shocked and very emotional.” He’d heard a rumor that the landlord would be taking over the space for his own use, “which left kind of a bitter taste in our mouths because we had to walk away from the store with nothing.” But he was moved to hear that someone from the neighborhood who knew his mom had taken over the deli and decided to memorialize her.
This wasn’t not the first unexpected gesture. In the wake of his mother’s death, Lim was shocked by the communal grief. “I didn’t realize what impact my mom had on people,” he says. “I always knew she was a great person, but I didn’t know she was this kind of person.” When he attended the candlelight vigil and on subsequent visits to clean out the store, he was constantly stopped by people who wanted to share their stories about his mom. Kids told him how she would give them candy, and some homeless people approached him to tell him she would occasionally give them a meal.
June Lim came to America from South Korea in the 1970s, after her husband, Ho Lim, emigrated here first to find a place for them to live. Lim raised a daughter and a son in Montgomery County, while Ho worked in construction. But once her kids were nearing the end of elementary school, she started working in carryout shops and eventually decided to open one of her own. Every day, Pete Lim recalls, she woke up at 4:30 a.m. to make the commute from Rockville to H Street NE. She worked 13-hour days, and at certain points over the years, struggled to make money. The work took its toll: “When we went to help my dad at the house, we saw all the medical bills and all the prescriptions she was on, and it really dawned on us how hard she worked,” Pete Lim says.
He’d only visited the shop once or twice in the past. Going back for the first time in years, he saw pictures that his mom had taped on the wall of her customers, and their kids and grandkids. “I didn’t realize she was so close to her customers,” he says. “They knew so much about her, it was just amazing.”
June Lim never met her only grandchild. Pete Lim says he and his wife had two miscarriages before their son was born on Sept. 24, 2012. “My mom was just completely devastated with each one, because I’m getting older, as she’d remind me,” he says. “When she found out that my son now, Jackson, was a healthy pregnancy, she was overjoyed. You can just tell in her face.” Lim starts to tear up as he talks about holding his son for the first time, surrounded by his entire family—except his mom. “It was so bittersweet. It was the happiest day of my life, at the same, so hard.”
Pete Lim revisited the deli on the first anniversary of his mom’s death last summer. At the time, the store was still closed. He expected to be more emotional, but sitting there, he felt at peace.
This past summer, Lim and his wife and son scattered his mom’s ashes on the beach in Chincoteague, Va., where he, his sister, and his parents vacationed every year growing up. He also keeps some of the ashes inside a little urn at home with a candle on top, which he lights all the time.
“I don’t necessarily know what I believe,” Lim says about his own religiosity and the afterlife. “It’s not like I don’t believe, but I’d like to believe. Especially now after what’s happened, I really, really would like to believe that there is a heaven.”
This is an extended version of the story that appeared in print.
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Photo of Darrow Montgomery