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Father’s last words to son: ‘They shot me in the back’

The Independent Muffler Shop 5654 S. Western Ave. where shop owner Michael Kozel (inset) was shot killed during robbery attempt

The Independent Muffler Shop, 5654 S. Western Ave., where shop owner Michael Kozel (inset) was shot and killed during a robbery attempt Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 5, 2013 6:20AM

When the poor strolled into his Gage Park muffler shop with their hands out, Michael Kozel often gave them work tidying up around the business he’d owned for two decades.

If a customer didn’t quite have enough for the bill, he’d say: Pay me later.

On Wednesday evening, the man who worried little about money came face to face with a gunman who at that moment cared about nothing else — in a neighborhood that’s been plagued with robberies in recent weeks.

Before making off with a wallet, the gunman shot Kozel. The 57-year-old grandfather just had time to telephone his 31-year-old son, also named Michael.

“They shot me in the back,” were Kozel’s last words to his boy.

As police sought Kozel’s killer and his accomplice Thursday, Kozel’s family and friends were left wondering how so generous a man could be so cruelly cut down.

“He looked like Santa, with a big beard, and he was just as giving,” said his son, who rushed to the muffler shop at 5654 S. Western, after getting the call from his dying father. The younger Kozel arrived in time to see an ambulance crew preparing to take his father to Stroger Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m.

Police released few details about the murder — the fifth of the New Year — but said two men walked into Kozel’s shop around 5:25 p.m. The men initially pretended to be customers. Then they tried to rob Kozel. One of Kozel’s employees told the Chicago Sun-Times he was in the back of the shop when he heard a gunshot. The employee, who would only agree to be identified as “Jeff,” said he ran to the front of the store, where he found a dying Kozel. That’s when the gunman seized him, Jeff said.

“He grabs me and threw me to the ground and said, ‘Give me the money,’” said Jeff, who wound up giving the man his wallet. The gunman and his accomplice then fled.

On Thursday morning, men with grease under their fingernails wiped away tears and hung their heads as they spoke about their employer, their friend — a man they called “The Big Kahuna.”

Rafael Lopez, 48, a tow-truck driver for Kozel for 10 years, said he was “a great man.”

“The best man in the world,” Lopez said. “Helped everybody. If you didn’t have no money, he don’t care.”

Kozel had a lifelong love of low-rider cars with big engines, the younger Michael Kozel said.

“He liked cars that went from zero to 60 and just threw you back in the seat,” he said.

The father was the proud owner of maroon low-rider Chevrolet Impala, but his family mattered far more than any possession.

He’d been married to his wife, Antonia, for more than 30 years.

“She’s lost her best friend,” his daughter, Amber Kozel, said of her mother.

The older Michael Kozel struggled with a fear of airplanes, but that didn’t stop him from traveling to Florida, Puerto Rico and Mexico, his daughter said.

“He hated flying, but he would go, because it made [his wife] happy,” Amber Kozel said.

The Gage Park neighborhood has been hit hard by robberies over the past few weeks.

Between Dec. 14 and Dec. 27, there were 11 holdups in the neighborhood. And during that period, overall crime spiked in the neighborhood compared to the time last year, police said.

Kozel’s shop is in police Beat 824 in the Chicago Lawn District. There were four robberies on that beat from Dec. 14 to Dec. 27, records show. A man also was killed in Beat 824 in a drive-by shooting on Jan. 1 in the 5800 block of South Sacramento.

There was another murder in Gage Park on Dec. 26 when a man was gunned down in the 5300 block of South California.

Contributing: Frank Main and Jon Seidel

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