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Proving her innocence does not allay hurt

A woman "as honest as the day is long'' faces a charge of shoplifting at a Winn-Dixie. A video shows her earlier with the item.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- For more than 20 years, Clara Woodard has earned her living based on people's trust.

In all those years, said Mrs. Woodard, a 55-year-old maid for three families in affluent Bayfront Tower, no one had ever accused her of stealing.

Until eight days ago. That was the day she was accused of stealing a $6.96 black umbrella from Winn-Dixie's downtown store and taken to jail. Less than 24 hours later, a videotape appeared to show what Mrs. Woodard repeatedly had tried to tell store employees and police: that she had the umbrella long before she walked into the supermarket.

A week after her arrest, Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. issued a terse apology.

"The company has been trying to reach Mrs. Woodard to let her know that we regret any inconvenience and to try to resolve this matter," Mickey Clerc, company spokesman from the chain's Jacksonville headquarters, said Tuesday afternoon.

The State Attorney's office, however, has not yet decided how to handle the case, said Shawn Crane, county court division director.

"It has just recently been referred to my office, and the case is presently under investigation," he said.

For Mrs. Woodard, whose 75-year-old father, granddaughter and great-grandson watched as she was taken away in a police cruiser, there may never be a resolution.

"This is something, until the day I die, I've got to live with. This will always be with me. Whether they drop the charges or whatever happens, this will always be with me. Nothing nobody can do could ever take this away from me. . . . I will be hurt the rest of my life," she said, adding that she is so full of shame she has not been able to sleep, has lost her appetite and has not gone back to church since that day.

She remembers it well, every mundane detail, the shopping carts that refused to come apart and the bagger who packed her meat with her fruit. She had finished work at Bayfront Tower and made a stop to deposit her earnings. She had put $140 in her checking account and caught the No. 7 bus to Winn-Dixie at 850 Third Ave. S.

"I just went and did my shopping, went through the aisle and paid for my groceries. It was $44 and some few cents, and so I made a check out," Mrs. Woodard recalled as she sat at the dining table in her neat, chain link-fenced cottage.

She said she was trying to get home in time to go to church that evening, so she called a cab and decided to wait outside the store until it arrived. It was at that point that her nightmare began.

The security alarm went off and the security guard, who usually stands outside the door, asked her to go back inside the store. An examination of her bags by a courtesy counter clerk turned up nothing, she said, but a second attempt to exit the store again set off the security alarm.

"By now, I'm getting really annoyed. . . . The security guard says, "Miss, you're going to have to go back,' " said Mrs. Woodard, an active member of the 13th Street Neighborhood Association and of her community's crime watch program.

This time another clerk suggested that Mrs. Woodard's umbrella was probably setting off the alarm.

"So the young lady who was searching my bag, she didn't ask me, "Can I look at that your umbrella?' Or "Would you give it to me?' She just grabbed it out the corner of my shoulder bag and went to looking at it. Then she went to asking me questions. Asked me did I buy this in here today? So I looked at her and I said, "No I didn't,' " Mrs. Woodard said.

"It came to me that I had bought it three weeks before. . . . I said I had this when I came into the store. So she said, "You couldn't have had it when you came into the store.' She said, "Because my alarm would have went off then,' " Mrs. Woodard said.

"I said, "Now, if you don't believe me . . . you can take me home and I can show you the little plastic container I had taken it out of this morning before I came to work.' . . . I said it is a brand-new umbrella I never used."

But no one listened to her, said Mrs. Woodard, who was allowed to telephone her father. By the time her father showed up at the store, the police had arrived. She was taken to a back room and interrogated, she said, first by a male officer and then by the female officer who was in charge.

The officer noted that she had never been in trouble, said Mrs. Woodard.

"I said, "Lady, I'll soon be 56 years old. I have no reason to be in trouble and I definitely won't be in trouble for a $6 umbrella,' " Mrs. Woodard recalled, adding that she asked the police officer to take her home so she could show her the umbrella's plastic case.

That was not to be. She was handcuffed and escorted out of the store.

"All these people out there are looking at me. My granddaughter standing there, my great-grandson standing there. He's crying because he wants me to pick him up. My father sitting there, trembling all over," she said.

Initially, said Mrs. Woodard, who suffers from hypertension and arthritis in her knees, she was taken to police headquarters on First Avenue N, where "they put me in another set of handcuffs and put some kind of chains around me in the back."

She was transferred to another vehicle and taken to Pinellas County Jail, where she was made to don "bluish jail clothes" and her photograph taken. She also was fingerprinted, weighed and her blood pressure checked.

"After all that, they took me back in the jail part with more ladies," Mrs. Woodard said. "The lady gave me some sheets and she gave me a little cup with a little bar of soap in it, toothbrush and some toothpaste. . . . I just couldn't believe what was going on with me."

Her father posted bail within hours, so she did not have to remain in jail overnight. She cannot recall what time she arrived home that night, but was alert enough the next day to think of something that might clear her name.

She remembered her trip to Mercantile Bank, at 240 First Ave. S, before going to the supermarket.

"They video you when you walk into a bank. You know this?" she said as she talked to a visitor earlier this week.

"So I walked into that bank . . . and I asked them would they mind please showing me that video."

They did and, said Mrs. Woodard, and it showed exactly what she hoped it would prove when she deposited a check at 2:44 p.m. that day.

"I had an uplift for myself," she said, remembering her relief.

"I was telling the truth and I had this to show, but then I was glad that God had given me the strength and . . . he opened my mind that I was able to think."

Amanda Allison, customer service administrator for Mercantile Bank, said police visited the facility to view the video.

"It showed that Miss Clara had an umbrella. It was in her purse when she came in. At the counter, it was in her hand," Ms. Allison said Tuesday.

According to James Giambruno, a public information officer with the St. Petersburg Police Department, Mrs. Woodard was arrested on June 13 and charged with shoplifting the umbrella. Three days later, though, the arresting officer filed another report indicating that she had spoken with Ms. Allison and had seen the bank video of Mrs. Woodard showing what appeared to be the black umbrella the woman had been accused of stealing.

"This information will be forwarded to the state attorney's office," Giambruno said early Tuesday. "We can't drop the charges. The state attorney has to do that."

Retailers' vigilance, said Sarah Scheuer of the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C., has grown because of heavy losses due to stealing.

Figures published by her organization in May 1999 showed that 48.3 percent of inventory shrinkage in grocery stores is attributed to employee theft. Scheuer added that 37.1 percent is attributed to shoplifting and the remainder to administrative error and vendor fraud.

"According to the University of Florida's 1998 National Retail Security Survey, retailers lost $8.9-billion to shoplifting alone," said Bruce Van Kleeck, vice president of retail operations at the National Retail Federation.

However, said Van Kleeck, such losses do not "give retailers any excuse to stop an innocent customer."

He added that most retailers are extremely careful before they accuse any customer of stealing and usually apologize promptly if an error is made.

The Winn-Dixie store at which Mrs. Woodard has been a regular customer appears to have a higher rate of shoplifting than at least two of the chain's other St. Petersburg stores. According to the St. Petersburg Police Department, 40 people were arrested for shoplifting at the downtown store between Jan. 1 and June 17 this year.

In comparison, said Giambruno, the Winn-Dixie supermarket at 1049 62nd Ave. N had one shoplifting arrest for the same period and the store at 11100 Fourth St. N., just four.

As Mrs. Woodard thinks about the past week, she says what happened to her could happen to anyone.

"It's like somebody died in your family that you were close to," she said. "A person should be able to prove themselves."

But those who have known her for years, say Mrs. Woodard already has done so.

"I would trust her before I would trust anyone else," said Katherine Safford, who lives in Bayfront Tower, where Mrs. Woodard has worked as her maid since 1979.

"She's just been a loyal person to me. She would never, ever take anything."

Added Bette Emory, another Bayfront resident and longtime employer of Mrs. Woodard.

"Clara has a lot of friends. They just picked on a person who is just known to be as honest as the day is long. You just trust her implicitly."

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