Most days, Jack Eads, 61 and blind, sits in his room at the Barth Hotel in lower downtown and putters around with one of his accordions. That's something he can do by himself. But his deft touch recently got him in big trouble: A saleswoman at the Walgreens drugstore in downtown Denver accused him of grabbing her breast while she was helping him shop at the store.
Eads says he felt like he got blindsided.
"Like German Nazis," says Eads, "they captured me and took me into the back of the store until the police car came."
Eads insists he's never had a problem at the 16th Street Mall store, where he's shopped since 1959. That's debatable, but what's absolutely true is that on January 29 Eads went into the store with another blind man to pick up his blood-pressure medication and ended up in jail.
"Normally they have a male employee help me around the store," says Eads. "But that day they were pretty busy, so the only one who could help us was this young woman. And the people who were running the store that day didn't have the good sense that God gave a rock, because they wanted this one girl to help both of us."
While leading Eads and his friend around the store, the 24-year-old female employee claims, Eads fondled her breast. She reported the incident to the manager on duty, who in turn alerted a Denver police officer who was stationed at the store. After paying for his purchases, Eads was arrested and charged with unlawful public indecency.
"I don't know if the girl was scared or what," says Eads, sitting in his sparsely furnished second-floor room at the Barth, "but I think what she did was a dirty trick. All I was doing was holding on to her arm." Is he a groper? Eads resoundingly says, "No!"
The store's position is equally clear: Eads has been eighty-sixed. Assistant manager Isaac Carter says the January incident wasn't the first time Eads has had problems with female employees there. "We've warned Jack before," says Carter. "The problem is that when Jack is being helped by a woman, he wants to hold on to her by her armpit as opposed to her upper arm. We have a lot of people come in who need help, and Jack's the only one who we have problems with. He's banned from the store."
Eads's foster sister, Cathy Habas, is infuriated. After he was booked, Eads was released into her custody. Habas calls the dispute ridiculous. "The city attorney wanted Jack to plead guilty," she says, "but Jack just could not make himself plead guilty to something he didn't do."
Habas says the woman who accused Jack was also at his arraignment on June 4. "She's very heavily endowed," explains Habas, "so I can see how maybe she could think that Jack touched her. She just seemed disgusted that Jack was only charged with unlawful public indecency and ordered to attend adult diversion classes." (The employee no longer works at Walgreens and could not be reached for comment about the incident.)
What Eads will have to do to meet the requirements of the adult diversion program has yet to be determined. Laurie Kaczanowska, who works for the city attorney's office and is manager of the alternative-resolution program, says the adult diversion program was created for first-offense cases such as this one. "The idea is to identify the type of offense that the individual committed," says Kaczanowska, "and get them into a counseling program that will help them live the right type of mentally healthy life. But at the same time, we want the program to be something that makes the complaining witness feel like the individual won't violate the law again. The overall concept is restorative justice."
But that hasn't restored Eads's sense of security. "The whole incident has made him very paranoid now," says Habas. "The other day he bumped into a woman in an elevator and practically jumped away from her. He said, 'I'm glad I wasn't at Walgreens.'"
One of Eads's friends, Lewis Sprowl, says that if Walgreens would take more responsibility for helping people who need assistance, situations like Eads's would never come up. Sprowl, who is also blind, says that he's had trouble getting help at Walgreens in the past. "They're maxed out quite a bit down there because the store is so busy, and as a result, it's harder to get help than in other places," says Sprowl. "They also have extra problems because so many of the people who come in are disabled. I think Walgreens should have an employee program to help them understand how to help the blind."
Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin says officials have started a program called "Service One," unique to the 16th Street Mall, that's aimed at helping disabled customers. Speaking from corporate headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois, Polzin is vague about details of "Service One" but insists that the program requires no special employee training. He's convinced that the store provides more than adequate assistance for disabled customers and that the decision to press charges against Eads was correct. "Our employee was upset by the way Jack handled her," says Polzin, "and she was well within her rights to do what she did."
Sprowl has decided to take his own action: He wrote a letter to Walgreens saying he wouldn't do business with the chain until Eads is cleared. "In short," says Sprowl, "I just don't think that Jack did what they accused him of doing."
The judge at Eads's June arraignment didn't see it that way. Eads was ordered to attend one hour a week of the adult diversion classes until his next court hearing, on August 28. If he has fulfilled the requirements of the program by that time, the indecency charge will be dismissed.
In the meantime, Eads has his prescriptions delivered to his hotel, which is near the Market Street Station, and relies upon friends to take him shopping.
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Even worse than the charges, he says, is being banned from Walgreens. "Walgreens is convenient for people like me who live downtown and can't drive," Eads explains as he caresses the keys on his accordion. "There used to be a Woolworths downtown, but that closed down, so Walgreens is the last place that I can walk to and shop."
The situation for disabled shoppers like Eads wasn't always so bad. "This part of downtown has changed so much in the twelve years I've lived here," he says. "It's terrible now. So many people have moved down here that there's no place left to shop. It's like a ghost town that way."
To keep himself busy while waiting for a friend to come pick him up, Eads perches on a stool next to his room's lone window and plays Christmas songs on his accordion. Most of the notes get drowned out by the roar of the heavy downtown traffic. During a break between songs, Eads says he doesn't hold any grudges against Walgreens. "There are some nice people who work there," he says. "But I'll tell you one thing: Even if they do let me go back into the store, I'm never asking for customer service again.