NEW YORK — Just days after publicly thanking God for the success of his company, Lowell Hawthorne, the devout Christian founder and CEO of the Bronx-based fast food chain Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill, fatally shot himself on Saturday allegedly over a looming tax probe by the federal government. He was 57.
Known for their iconic Jamaican beef patties, Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill started in 1989 by Hawthorne and his family, has been wildly successful with more than 120 stores in New York and several other states.
Hawthorne, a Jamaican immigrant who appeared on an episode of "Undercover Boss," painted a picture of that continuing success when he celebrated the opening of another restaurant location in Houston on his Facebook page last Tuesday.
"I was always in search of the next honest means to make a dollar. Like many transplanted Caribbean nationals, I struggled to work and raise a family. I can only thank God for everything I have achieved, and if my story here can inspire others to rise up and give it a go, then I would have succeeded in doing something meaningful," he wrote.
At about 5:10 p.m. on Saturday, the New York Police Department said Hawthorne was found dead in his office at the company factory located at 3958 Park Avenue in the Claremont neighborhood.
According to the New York Post, he was found on the floor of his office with a single bullet wound to his head and a handgun nearby. Surveillance video is also said to show Hawthorne shooting himself in the head after speaking with two of his workers. The workers walked out of his office prior to the shooting. Detectives also found a note with Hawthorne's body but did not make the contents of the note public, The New York Times said.
A family member told investigators that Hawthorne had been overwhelmed by fears the federal government was investigating him for evading millions of dollars in taxes, The New York Post reported. Records cited by the New York Daily News said Hawthorne owed some $165,000 in city and state taxes and was being sued for thousands in lost wages by a former employee. Hours before his suicide, he was said to be "acting funny" and "talking to himself."
In his 2012 book, The Baker's Son: My Life in Business, Hawthorne frequently spoke about how his faith in God had helped him succeed in his business, surviving extortionists and overcoming an aneurysm nine years ago.
"Despite my preoccupation with work, however, I am very involved in the lives of my wife, children, and the wider family with a routine that includes being home for dinner and at church on Sunday," Hawthorne wrote in his book.
"Many individuals had contributed to my growth and development. The unqualified support of my parents and their insistence on the primacy of Christian values and family unity was the bedrock that nurtured my confidence and facilitated my progress at all levels," he explained.
And he worked hard to pass down those values to his children.
"Being a spiritual man, I have always wanted to have my children in church with me. I believe wholeheartedly in the principles and philosophies that my father shared, and so was determined to pass the same values on to my kids in turn. Words from my father like, 'Follow after me as I follow after Christ' and 'Be of good courage and walk as men' have been close to my heart since I was a boy. I truly believe that creating the same environment for my children that my father did for my siblings and me would lead them to Christ, ultimately transforming their lives and placing Him at the center of their joy," he added.
Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books in Brooklyn under whose imprint is Hawthorne's book, told The Christian Post Tuesday that he was surprised by Hawthorne's suicide and recalled him as a warm and generous person.
"I remember Lowell as a very generous man with a bountiful spirit. He had a huge heart and greeted everyone with warmth and compassion. It was a distinct pleasure to work with him on his book," Temple said in an email. "The manner of his death came as a surprise to me."
Ruben Diaz Jr., Bronx borough president, urged prayers for the fast food magnate who was baptized at Bronx Bethany Church of the Nazarene.
"Lowell Hawthorne was a good friend, and was always ready to help my office whenever we needed him. He will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and employees during this difficult time," Diaz wrote on Twitter.
Andrew Holness, Jamaica's prime minister, also offered condolences on Twitter.
In a statement Sunday, Hawthorne's family said they were heartbroken.
"Our hearts are broken, and we are struggling to process our grief over this tremendous loss. Lowell was a visionary, entrepreneur, community champion and above all, a committed father, family man, friend and man of faith," the family said. "To those who have offered us an outpouring of sympathy and love, we say: thank you. Your support means the world to us, and we ask you to keep us in your prayers."
Steven Clarke, Hawthorne's nephew and spokesman for Golden Krust, told The New York Times that as much as the family was grieving, the business would continue.
"As much as we're mourning, as much as we are trying to understand how we are where we are, we do have to assure our franchisees that we are equipped internally to carry on our uncle's mission," he said.
Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced at a later date.