Niles couple banned from Wal-Mart after dispute over BIC lighters By LOU MUMFORD Tribune Staff Writer
This is an updated version of the story that includes corrected content.
NILES — The two Bic multipurpose lighters and a package of smaller lighters Joe Paolucci bought at the Niles Wal-Mart on Aug. 16 cost $15.84.
So how did the lighters end up the centerpiece of a situation that resulted in Paolucci and his gay partner, Thomas Hitchcock, being banned from Wal-Mart, not only in Niles but everywhere? That's the rest of the story.
Paolucci said he and Hitchcock had visited the store often since the two Chicago attorneys — for 13 years, Paolucci was general counsel for the real estate investment company owned by Chicago billionaire Sam Zell — opened a store known simply as Front in downtown Buchanan.
The "high-end modernist gallery/shop," as Paolucci described it, stemmed from an extensive rehabilitation project. He and Hitchcock own investment properties in downtown Buchanan as well, they said, plus a second home near Buchanan that they occupy with two special-needs 11-year-old twin sons they adopted from Romania.
"The kids call us Daddy and Poppa," said Paolucci, who maintains a primary residence with Hitchcock and the boys in Chicago's Lincoln Park area.
Reward for good behavior
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.
Paolucci said that while he and Hitchcock were attempting to calm down the boys, the employees ordered them to enter a "detention room" for questioning. Fearful of what might happen behind closed doors, he and Hitchcock refused to enter and asked to speak to a manager.
"Some guy came up and said, 'I'm the manager,' then turned around and left," Hitchcock said.
Paolucci said he and Hitchcock then asked store personnel to call police. Within minutes, deputies from the Berrien County Sheriff's Department's Niles Township Patrol arrived, pleasing Paolucci who said he thought a few questions and a review of the store's videotapes and computer records would quickly resolve the matter.
He said he was shocked when he was immediately handcuffed, without a question being asked, and placed in the back seat of a squad car. Hitchcock wasn't handcuffed but also was placed in the back seat of a second squad car.
The twins, despite the protests of Paolucci and Hitchcock, were turned over to the store's security personnel, who took them into the "detention room" or what police referred to as a security room.
Cleared by the tape
Paolucci and Hitchcock estimated it was at least 45 minutes before officers told them they had reviewed the store's tapes and had determined that the lighters hadn't been shoplifted. The two said they expected an apology and were surprised once again when personnel from the store walked up to the squad cars with the twins and read from a statement that Paolucci and Hitchcock had been banned by the store chain for life. Rather than shoplifting, the reason they were given was "being uncooperative."
"Everything they asked us to do, we did. We cooperated 100 percent," Paolucci argued. "We objected only when they tried to get us to go into the detention room."
By the time they were read the statement, Paolucci and Hitchcock said, the twins had told them that the security staff had 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.
Charges sought, denied
Numerous follow-up telephone calls to the Sheriff's Department eventually succeeded in officers interviewing 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.
Contacted by The Tribune, Wal-Mart wouldn't comment but Bailey defended his deputies, arguing that they followed proper protocol not only in their treatment of Paolucci and Hitchcock but by placing the children in what they considered a safe and secure environment. He didn't personally meet with the couple, he said, because R. McKinley Elliott, the county's corporate counsel, advised against it.
Elliott said there simply was no reason for Bailey to have such a meeting.
"It would not have been a productive use of his time," he said.
Elliott said a thorough review of the store's videotapes revealed nothing improper by either store employees or police.
"The Prosecutor's Office didn't see any basis for acting against anyone," he said.
As for the shoplifting accusation, a copy of the police report obtained by The Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act stated that video surveillance clearly showed Paolucci scanning both packages of lighters.
"It is unknown at this time why the self checkout scanner did not pick up the items scanned by Paolucci," the report said.
The report also stated that when officers arrived at the store, they found Paolucci and Hitchcock "causing a scene, being very loud and disrupting customers while yelling and swearing at Wal-Mart security." Later in the report, when a Wal-Mart employee was asked if the boys had been threatened, she denied it but did agree they were told that "if ... (they) did not be quiet, they would sit in the (squad) car with (the) deputy."
The report added the boys played a video game while in the security room and at one point apologized "for being disrespectful." According to the report, one of the boys advised that he and his brother were "just scared."
Twins still having problems
At any rate, Paolucci said the boys have suffered a type of post-traumatic stress disorder since the experience. Both wet their beds, although one has stopped, and both have had nightmares about one security employee in particular, he said.
"They're terrified, horrified. We've had to change their medication twice,'' he said.
Asked if they intend to sue Wal-Mart, Paolucci said he and Hitchcock probably won't because other attorneys have advised them Wal-Mart historically "plays hardball" and isn't prone to settle cases out of court.
"We could spend a couple million dollars to sue them," Paolucci said.
But that doesn't mean there won't be court action. Paolucci and Hitchcock e-mailed The Tribune a copy of a letter from a law firm representing Wal-Mart seeking 10 times the retail price of the items the store still claims were shoplifted by Paolucci. The letter states the matter will be dropped if Paolucci submits the $158.40 payment.
The couple said they won't pay it, and should civil action result, they'll fight it.
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