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Shoplifting charges don't hold up in court

Stecil Ferguson, 74, is one of two women who fought charges of stealing from a downtown Winn-Dixie and won.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- A 74-year-old woman who was arrested on shoplifting charges at a downtown Winn-Dixie supermarket fought the accusation in court and won.

Stecil Ferguson was detained at the same Winn-Dixie store where Clara Woodard, 55, recently was accused of stealing a $6.96 black umbrella and taken to jail. Mrs. Woodard later was able to use a bank videotape to prove that she owned the umbrella.

Mrs. Ferguson's circumstances were different. The grandmother of five was stopped with a tube of lip balm and vial of ointment in her pocket. Unlike Mrs. Woodard, though, she was not handcuffed and booked into the Pinellas County Jail. Rather, Mrs. Ferguson was ordered to appear in court at a later date.

"It is up to the officer on the scene to make the determination on what he is going to do," said Chip Wells, a public information officer with the St. Petersburg Police Department.

"There are some officers, if you are arrested, they take you to jail," he said.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Ferguson, a former office worker from Indianapolis, talked about what happened in February at the Winn-Dixie, 850 Third Ave. S.

"I had gone around the store and, as I usually did, I stopped to get my blood pressure checked before I went to the checkout counter. The last two items I got were Chapstick and a little tube of ointment," she said. "There was no place to rest those, so I put them in my jacket and said to myself, "Now don't forget to hand them to the cashier.' "

But, Mrs. Ferguson said, she became distracted after hunting in her bag for pen and paper to record her blood pressure reading and trying to make sure that all of her purchases were bagged.

The store's security alarm went off as she walked near the door.

"I was going across the exit because I was transferring the groceries from their cart to mine," said Mrs. Ferguson, who lives at John Knox Apartments, a complex for senior citizens.

After the alarm went off, the manager grabbed her cart, which contained $79.74 of groceries, Mrs. Ferguson said.

"Then she told me to go out the exit and come back in the entrance. The alarm went off both times. Then it came to me that I've got these items. I told the manager I'll pay for them, but she says, "Oh, no, You won't.' She rushes back to the office and she comes back and she starts in on me. She was totally abusive. This was at the top of her lungs."

When asked why Mrs. Ferguson and Mrs. Woodward received different treatment, Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. said its employees handle each case individually.

"Every situation is different and the actions our people take are based on the situation at the time. Situations will vary," said Mickey Clerc, a company spokesman from the chain's Jacksonville headquarters.

He added that he was unfamiliar with the incident involving Mrs. Ferguson.

The store manager called the police, Mrs. Ferguson said. When a police officer arrived, he filled out a complaint and ordered her to appear in court.

The whole incident took more than an hour, she said Tuesday as she sat in her tiny living room.

"You would have thought I had knocked over Chase Manhattan Bank," she said.

Mrs. Ferguson, who does not drive, said she made two two-hour round trips by bus to the Pinellas County Courthouse. She did not have an attorney and pleaded not guilty during her first court appearance.

"I had no alternative but to plead "not guilty,' because I did not intend to shoplift. . . . It was an oversight on my part," she said.

She was found not guilty after a non-jury trial on April 12.

The state attorney, meanwhile, has declined to prosecute Mrs. Woodard.- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.

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