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People feel pinch of tight retail security


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- As a woman left a Winn-Dixie supermarket with $66.97 worth of groceries she had just bought, the store's security alarm went off.

Before the episode was over, Kathleen Anne Germack, a 39-year-old homemaker, was accused of stealing false nails worth $2.58. A package was found in the bottom of her purse.

"I had paid for everything," said Mrs. Germack, who had gone to the store after taking her young children to school on Oct. 20.

When a check of the shopping cart produced nothing that had set off the store's alarm, Mrs. Germack said she started to empty her purse.

It was then that the false nails were discovered.

The manager of the store at 1049 62nd Ave. N asked where she had gotten them, Mrs. Germack said.

"I said, "I don't know.' He said, "You got them here,' " she recalled. Sitting in the kitchen of her Meadowlawn home this week, she held up the large, worn leather purse in which she keeps everything from nail polish to dental floss to towelettes.

"I said, maybe I did. I don't know. I go to Target. I go to K-Mart. . . . He would not let me show him they had been open. . . . Really, already he was insinuating that I had stolen them. He tried to get me to sign this paper that I would never trespass into Winn-Dixie because I was caught shoplifting. I wouldn't sign it.

"I called my husband at work (although) he told me I couldn't use my cell phone. I was bawling and I asked, can I please have a Kleenex? I was crying and a whole lot of people saw me."

The police were called, and she was issued a notice to appear in Pinellas County Circuit Court. Her case has been scheduled for Nov. 17.

Mickey Clerc, company spokesman for Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., said he was unfamiliar with the shoplifting incident. He also declined to discuss whether the supermarket chain asked accused shoplifters to sign a no-trespassing document.

"We do not discuss security procedures or systems," he said.

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

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 37.1 percent is attributed to shoplifting and the rest to administrative error and vendor fraud.

Mrs. Germack, who has no criminal record, is stunned by what has happened.

"I didn't do this. I didn't do it. Why should (Winn-Dixie) do this to me? We spend all our money there," she said.

She has been contacted by more than two dozen lawyers.

"I came home and there are 30 envelopes here and they all say criminal lawyers. . . . This is so bad, because I'm not guilty," she said, repeating her steady refrain.

The October incident has changed her, she added.

"I'm paranoid. When I go into a store, I just take my checkbook and wallet," she said.

Her daughters, Dylan, 9, and Hayley, 12, express relief once the family makes it past a security checkout.

"My younger daughter says, "We've made it, Mom.' . . . It's affected all of us. I think it's something that's just going to have to wear off. But the main thing is if I go to get a job I have to write down that I've been arrested, and then I've got to explain this whole stupid thing."

For Clara Woodard, a middle-age black woman who also was accused of shoplifting at a different Winn-Dixie store, her troubles are not easily forgotten. In June, Mrs. Woodard 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. Her name has been cleared but her attorney, Jay Hebert, said Mrs. Woodard is receiving medical care to help her cope with the trauma.

"She is seeing a doctor and we are preparing our complaint and we're trying to assess her damages," he said.

Shortly after Mrs. Woodard's story appeared in Neighborhood Times, an elderly woman told her story of also being arrested at Winn-Dixie and accused of shoplifting. Stecil Ferguson fought the accusation in court and won.

However, the circumstances surrounding the arrest of both Mrs. Ferguson and Mrs. Germack, who are white, were different from Mrs. Woodard's. While neither of the two women were handcuffed and taken to jail, Mrs. Woodard was handcuffed and booked into the Pinellas County Jail.

St. Petersburg police Lt. Joe Jesiolkiewic said the department has guidelines concerning arrests, but that the officer also has to use his own judgment.

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