A $7.50 can of sale paint was no bargain for 44-year-old Denver antique dealer Myke Johnson: She might wind up mortgaging her house to pay for it.
But Johnson won't find a lot of sympathy in Edgewater. The little suburb's police force reportedly turned out en masse for Johnson's trial and celebrated her shoplifting conviction--which she still hotly disputes--with flashing lights and blaring sirens. Johnson's attorney says it was "sort of like being in the Twilight Zone."
The unusual case--which culminated in Edgewater's first jury trial of any kind in more than two years--began one afternoon last July when Johnson and her daughter, Julie Rodriguez, walked out of a store without paying for one of the items in their shopping cart. The excursion ended with the two of them handcuffed and arrested for shoplifting.
Since then they have chalked up $3,000 in legal fees, $1,000 in fines and at least $600 in medical costs for treatment of injuries allegedly suffered at the hands of Edgewater police. And now, after failing to convince a jury of their innocence, the two women are planning to appeal their convictions.
Johnson and Rodriguez, neither of whom has a previous arrest record with the state, Denver or Edgewater, expect their appeal to cost thousands more. But, says Johnson, "I feel like they've left me no choice."
Rodriguez and Johnson were headed home July 23 when Johnson decided to stop at Builder's Square in Edgewater, a town of about 5,000 that sits just west of the Denver/Jefferson county line.
Johnson's first selection was a gallon of Glidden paint--half-off at $7.50. She picked up a few other items and then lined up to pay. But the cashier had trouble ringing up the paint and told Johnson she'd have to take it to another counter. Johnson put the paint back in her cart, then waited as the cashier rang up the wrong price on another item.
By that time, Johnson says, she and her daughter were tired, frustrated and in a hurry. Rodriguez, who was at the other end of the counter, was not paying attention to the transaction, she says. So when she saw her mother write out a check and hand it to the cashier, she headed for the door with their cart. The two were walking through the parking lot when assistant store manager Barbara Clarke hailed them and told Johnson she'd forgotten to pay for the paint.
Johnson handed the can to Clarke, said she didn't want it and told her she would come back later. Clarke returned to the store. A minute later, security guard Steve Martinez came out and demanded that Johnson accompany him inside. Rodriguez went with them.
"All the way up to the office," Martinez wrote in a report, "both the lady and the girl kept on changing their stories, [saying] that we had confused her too much and then that she forgot to pay and that they would [have] paid but that her time was too valuable." But to Johnson, it was all the same story: They'd confused her, she'd forgotten and she would have paid for the paint when Clarke stopped her, but she was rushed for time and gave it back instead.
When Martinez would not summon the store manager as she asked, Johnson balked. She refused to show identification even when he said he'd call the police. "The police were no threat to me," Johnson says. "I'd never had a problem before. I said, `Fine. Go ahead and call them.' I thought I'd explain my situation and we'd be on our way."
Things didn't go as she expected.
According to Johnson, two Edgewater police officers burst through the security office door, swearing and threatening her and her daughter with jail if they didn't turn over their IDs. Johnson immediately pulled out her driver's license. When Rodriguez did not comply, Officer Scott Fowle grabbed her purse. He felt it necessary, he later wrote in his report, "to check it for weapons." Rodriguez then "pulled the purse from my hands and started to put her hand inside the purse," he wrote. "I feared that [she] may have been reaching for a weapon, so I took hold of her right hand in an attempt to control her. [She] pulled away from me and I was forced to handcuff her while she struggled to get away."
Rodriguez says Fowle's actions went far beyond that. "I was thrown onto the table," she says. "My head was slammed into the table about six times. I was not resisting. I was in a state of shock."
When Johnson saw this, she jumped up and began waving clenched fists. "I was screaming and yelling, `She hasn't done anything,'" Johnson says. Officer Larry Bauer then grabbed Johnson, and "slammed my face into the table about three times," she says. "Then they pushed us into chairs and asked us if we could behave ourselves."
Fowle wrote in his report that Bauer handcuffed Johnson because she "was about to strike me with her fist."
The officers gave Rodriguez a ticket for shoplifting; Johnson got one for shoplifting and interference. Then they were released.
That night Rodriguez went to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center complaining of a headache and vision problems. Johnson visited her doctor the next day, citing neck and back pain; the doctor noted numerous bruises on his evaluation form. Johnson also had her husband and two neighbors take pictures to document those injuries: The photos show a large bruise on the left side of her chin and a smaller bruise on her right arm.
Johnson complained about their treat-ment to Edgewater police chief Alan Pfeuffer, who says he questioned his officers and "they indicated it happened pretty much the way it happened in the report." Fowle and Bauer didn't return Westword's phone calls.
The women's trial, held November 10, was Edgewater's first jury trial since 1991. And according to Johnson's attorney, Randy Paulsen, so many Edgewater officers were in attendance that the courtroom took on the appearance of a police convention. "Between five to ten police officers stayed there almost the entire day," he says. (Edgewater has only fourteen full-time officers, including the chief.) "And they were all standing around outside the jury room as they deliberated."
Chief Pfeuffer, however, says he thinks he and a reserve officer were the only Edgewater cops to sit through the trial. The chief says he attended because it was a chance to evaluate the way his officers testified in court (they both denied using excessive force); the reserve officer came because he'd never seen a trial.
After the day-long trial and an hour of deliberation, the jury found both women guilty on all counts. "We just felt that maybe it wasn't intentional, but the act did occur," says the jury foreman, who asks that his name not be used. "They took something out of the store without paying for it."
The jury's pronouncement was met with a blast of noise and light from Edgewater officers. "Eight or twelve lit up their lights and turned on their sirens as they left the parking lot after the verdict," says Paulsen. Pfeuffer agrees his officers did that, but says the timing was coincidental. "There apparently was a violent domestic situation or a hot call," he explains, and the officers were responding to it.
Johnson took the verdict hard, in part because the judge refused to allow her photographs into evidence. "I was really looking forward to going to court and getting this over with," she says. "Now I feel like I've been beaten up all over again."
Still, Johnson isn't giving up. She filed notice of an appeal five days after the trial. "If I have to mortgage my house to pay for this, I will," she vows.
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No one contacted at Edgewater's Builder's Square store would discuss the case. But Michele Autenrieth, a company spokeswoman in San Antonio, says the chain has "zero tolerance" toward shoplifters. When people walk out with unpaid merchandise, even if they've merely forgotten to pay, Builder's Square will press charges, she says.
The foreman of Johnson's jury apparently has more tolerance. "The toughest thing, and I think I can speak for all the jurors on this, is that it's ironic that this is a case of $7.50," he says. "No matter if it's only a dollar, an offense is an offense, yet thinking we were going through all that for just $7.50 makes it kind of tough because you want to do the right thing."
It didn't help the juror that the two sides were so diametrically opposed, he says. And it's tough on him, too, he admits, because he can identify with the situation.
"A couple days after this trial, I was in King Soopers," he says. "I had put a bottle of water on the bottom rack of the cart and was being checked out. I forgot it, but then I saw the water and stopped and immediately put it on the belt and paid for it. I realized how easy it could happen and that I wouldn't want to be in a spot like those poor ladies.