As if shopping at Wal-Mart didn’t already require the suspension of a certain set of morals, here’s a whole new reason to loathe the retail giant: After falsely accusing two gay dads of stealing, and detaining their two children in the store, and allegedly harassing them, and manufacturing a situation that had the dads handcuffed and in the back of a police car, Wal-Mart has banned the family from its stores “for life” — and stuck them with a bill asking for ten times the value of the supposedly stolen items. And what did this family allegedly rob Wal-Mart of? Bic lighters.
If “this is just ridiculous” is your first thought, you wouldn’t be blamed.
The Chicago area’s Joe Paolucci and his partner Thomas Hitchcock might know a thing about retail stores and the law: Both are attorneys who launched their own home goods retail store. And yet somehow they’re on the hook for trying to steal a package of Bic lighters with a retail value of $15.84?
It all happened back on Aug. 16, when Paolucci and Hitchcock were shopping with their special-needs 11-year-old twin sons they adopted from Romania. The South Bend Tribune on what transpired:
On Aug. 16, the four traveled to Wal-Mart at least in part, Paolucci said, to reward the twins for recent good behavior. Hitchcock bought groceries totaling some $200 and checked out at a counter operated by a cashier. Paolucci, meanwhile, went to a self-checkout lane to use scanning equipment he had operated before.
Later, he said, he returned to the shopping area to pick up additional items, including the lighters, which he scanned and placed in bags. He grabbed his receipt for the items, totaling some $60, and headed for the exit, as did Hitchcock and the boys.
Before they got outside, store employees stopped them.
“They asked if I had Bic lighters. I said, ‘Yes,’ and handed them over,” Paolucci said. “Then they asked if I had a receipt. I said, ‘Yes, you’re holding it.’ Then this group of Wal-Mart employees started forming around us.”
Paolucci and Hitchcock said the employees were threatening and that one used a vulgarity. Their accusations frightened the boys, who began “crying, screaming and freaking out,” they said.
Employees ordered Paolucci and Hitchcock into a “detention room” — they refused, and ordered the police be called, thinking the cops would sort out the situation. But when the cops arrived, officers placed the dads in the back of their squad cars without first ascertaining the situation; Paolucci was handcuffed. And their kids? Taken in the back to a detention room with Wal-Mart’s security officers, who “allegedly threatened them in the security room and had made disparaging remarks about Paolucci and Hitchcock’s lifestyle. Paolucci and Hitchcock said they asked police to take statements from the boys but the officers refused, telling the couple they’d have to contact Child Protective Services. They were told next that they’d have to leave the premises immediately, they said, or be arrested for trespassing. The men said they argued the store should at least replace such grocery items as a frozen pizza, ice cream and popsicles, which by then had thawed or melted, but those arguments, too, went nowhere.”
It took several days and phone calls, but the police finally interviewed the boys four days later, “with one of the issues raised an allegation by Paolucci that one of the twins had been injured when he was pushed into the security room. Paolucci said he and Hitchcock also asked the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office to file criminal charges against Wal-Mart’s employees but none were forthcoming. They weren’t surprised charges weren’t authorized, they said, because such prosecution would have raised questions about the Sheriff’s Department’s handling of the situation. Attempts to meet personally with Sheriff Paul Bailey were rebuffed, they said.”
Meanwhile, a copy of the police report obtained by the newspaper states security footage shows Paolucci did scan both packages of Bic lighters, raising the possibility the store’s scanner was defective, leading to the entire situation.
As for whether the couple plans to take legal action against Wal-Mart? Not likely, since rather than settle out of court, Wal-Mart would likely “play hardball” and make it a financial nightmare to take them on in court. In the meantime, Wal-Mart’s attorneys sent Paolucci and Hitchcock a letter demanding $158.40, or 10X the price of the lighters. They don’t plan on paying.
This isn’t the first time Paolucci and Hitchcock have been involved in a situation involving harassment against their family: In 2006, their sons’ Chicago City Day School — which supposedly maintained a zero-tolerance policy against anti-gay bullying — allegedly refused to act when their boys came home crying because other students were teasing them for having gay dads.
It’s still unclear whether Wal-Mart’s disdain for this family has anything to do with their sexuality, but employees were obviously aware they were dealing with a gay family. And if you believes the dads and their kids, they were subjected to anti-gay harassment. All the more ridiculous, because it’s clear nobody was trying to steal anything; this family was actually composed of shoppers spending money with the store; and they’ve banned them for life over what is, arguably, a misunderstanding gone very, very bad.