Sprint employees fired for capturing shoplifter

"Mike and I thought we did the good deed of the day," says Paul Shoemaker -- and why wouldn't he?

After all, Shoemaker and Mike McGee, co-workers at a Sprint outlet at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, were heading on break when they heard a cry for help from an aging security guard as a shoplifting suspect blazed past them -- and instead of ignoring this plea, they chased the guy down, caught him, and held him until mall security and police arrived.

Their reward for this heroic action? They were fired.

McGee and Shoemaker were veteran Sprint employees, having worked for the company for four years and six years, respectively -- and both of them are in good shape. McGee works a side job as a security guard at Lodo's Bar and Grill, while Shoemaker serves as a volunteer firefighter in the Denver metro area.

Their awareness of shoplifting was heightened as of April 16, when the incident took place, due to the previous day's theft of an iPad from an Apple Store a few spaces away from their shop. That incident, for which twenty-year-old Brandon Darnell Smith was subsequently arrested, wound up making headlines across the country because the victim, Bill Jordan, had most of his pinky finger torn off during the crime.

According to Shoemaker, Jordan "was attacked at 4:30 the night before" their encounter with a shoplifter. "I was working at the time, and you could see drips of blood -- a trail of it on the lower level down by the food court."

Cut to the 16th, when, McGee says, "we were heading out of the store to take our break, when we heard this security guard who was probably in his mid- to late-fifties yelling, 'Help! Somebody stop that guy!'"

"I looked to my left," Shoemaker chimes in, "and I see this kid running by. He's carrying something in a black fleece jacket like it's a football."

They didn't know whether the man had snatched "the purse of a single mom who wouldn't be able to make rent without it, if he had a baby in there, or what," McGee says. "We had no idea."

But they knew what to do. Shoemaker says, "I looked at Mike for a couple of seconds and saw what he was thinking, and he saw what I was thinking. And we took off running."

The chase went through one of the mall's anchor stores, Macy's, after which the suspect "exited out the doors by the underground parking garage," Shoemaker says. "And right at that point, I made contact with him. If I remember correctly, I put one arm on him, and he was fighting, so I wrapped him in both of my arms, and he ended up taking me down."

"When I first got to him, he was on top of Paul on the ground," McGee confirms. "And I helped restrain him, got him to calm down."

"Mike got him off me and we moved him to this little curb, because we were in the middle of the road," Shoemaker explains. "And by then, the security guard had come out. He said he needed to run to his car to phone the police and get his handcuffs. So we sat there for a couple of minutes, until an off-duty Denver police officer came up and said, 'Do you need any help? I've got handcuffs.'"

Before long, on-duty Denver cops and representatives of mall security had joined the crowd. As for the guard who'd been giving chase, he worked for the same Apple Store hit by Smith the previous day. The suspect allegedly grabbed several pieces of Apple software retailing for just over $500.

Shoemaker and McGee filled out paperwork for the mall and the police, accepted heartfelt congratulations for their quick thinking, and then returned to the Sprint store. About fifteen minutes had elapsed; their break was over.

Word soon got around about the pair's actions, and they were treated like minor celebrities by fellow mall workers. For instance, Shoemaker says, "The lady at the Apple Store was so thankful. And she told me, 'We've been sending you business over the last week,' because a drive that Sprint supports works really well with their iPad. They were telling people to come over and get it from us."

All was good until last Thursday, when the situation took an unexpected turn for the worse, with McGee and Shoemaker receiving corporate e-mails asking them to describe the shoplifting incident. Then, and only then, did they find out that Sprint had a policy stating that employees shouldn't confront thieves. "It doesn't say anything about things happening outside the store," McGee notes. "It does say they don't want you to detain them and hold them, but it doesn't say doing it is punishable by corrective action or termination. It's a very gray area, the way it's written up."

Apparently not. The next day, Shoemaker and McGee were called in to separate meetings, where they were told that their Sprint days were over. "They didn't really tell us anything," Shoemaker says. "They didn't let us know where they were coming from. They just said, 'We looked into it further, and you're fired.' They labeled it a form of misconduct."

To McGee and Shoemaker, that's a highly questionable conclusion. The incident took place outside the Sprint store while they were on a break, it involved a criminal who had stolen goods from another business entirely, and they had responded to a request for help. In addition, they had never been told not to intervene in a shoplifting situation, despite having been longtime employees, with Shoemaker even serving in a management capacity for a time. Taking all that into account, they believe they should have been told not to do what they'd done again rather than getting canned.

To express their sense of injustice, Shoemaker, at the urging of his fellow volunteer firefighters, created a Facebook page telling their story. It went live on Saturday afternoon, and at this writing, it registers 265 friends and climbing rapidly. On top of that, they've told their story to a couple of local TV stations (to which Sprint offered no comment) and a radio outlet -- and the feedback they've received has been entirely supportive of their situation.

Nonetheless, neither of them say they want to sue Sprint for wrongful termination -- at least right now. Why not?

"I liked my job a lot," McGee says, "and I didn't want to lose it. But at this point, I'm not sure I could go back to it and be treated fairly anymore."

As for Shoemaker, he says, "I think with me being just one fish in a sea of millions, I'm not going to get anywhere with a single attorney -- plus, the cost of it would be more than what I'm looking for. I'm not out there trying to make money off of this. I know there are a lot of people who sue companies because their coffee is too hot, but that's not me."

Even so, Shoemaker stresses the hardships with which he's now faced because of the firing. For one thing, he's engaged to be married -- a terrible time to face an unexpected loss of income.

Still, getting the opportunity to tell his story has helped. "I'm glad everybody is supporting us," Shoemaker says. "It makes me feel good to feel I'm not the one who screwed up. That's important to me."

Same goes for McGee. But he's got one more message: "We're both looking for jobs."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts