Desirae Nelson spent the better part of what would be her last shift at Safeway trapped in a tiny room with three hostile men. She wasn't a hostage in a robbery gone wrong. Rather, she says, she was the victim of the grocery chain's overly aggressive security tactics in Oregon.
Although the incident took place back in the fall of 2001, Nelson remembers the details vividly. She arrived for work at the Florence store planning to take her usual eight-hour shift at the check-stand. After a couple hours of work, she was summoned to the store director's office. There, she was met by Dave Curtis, an internal security employee who worked out of Safeway's regional office in Clackamas, and who, she says, told her she'd been caught stealing money from the till.
"He was inches from my face and yelling like a drill sergeant," Nelson says. "He would get up in a rage suddenly and scream at me, then sit back down. It was very frightening."
Nelson claims she was held against her will and interrogated for two and a half hours as Curtis tried to coerce her into signing a confession of theft. Finally, she gave in. "I just felt defeated and scared," Nelson explains. "They said they would throw me in jail if I didn't sign it and I wouldn't be able to call anybody, so nobody would know where I was."
Despite Curtis' promise that the matter would be handled internally if she confessed, his partner, Tom Jones, called the Florence Police and had the hysterical Nelson searched and escorted out of the store in handcuffs. Once the police learned that Nelson had been intimidated into signing, they released her. Safeway tried to press charges, but the district attorney threw out the case, citing a lack of evidence.
She says she was fired the next day.
Nelson later found out her experience wasn't unique. Three other former Safeway employees from towns across Oregon--all of them women--soon reported similar encounters with Curtis. In February, the four filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court against the California-based grocery chain, seeking $200,000 each in damages. The case hasn't moved past the complaint phase so far.
According to the complaint, when Curtis interrogated one of the plaintiffs, she was eight months pregnant and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after having been robbed at gunpoint. Another wasn't set free even when she began having a panic attack and begged to be let out of the room. One woman, Aprill Campbell of Springfield, reported that Curtis had threatened her with physical harm if she didn't confess.
"He leaned across the desk and told me that he was going to take me out and kick my ass if I didn't sign the confession, and he might just do it even if I did," Campbell says. "I wasn't going to find out if he was capable of doing that."
She says Curtis also told her that unless she admitted to the theft, her disabled child would get off the bus from school with no one to pick her up. "He told me right off the bat, 'If you ask to see the proof, we're going right to jail from here,'" Campbell recalls. "He said that if I went to jail, I wouldn't be able to take care of my child."
Like the others, Campbell maintains that she never stole from Safeway and was never offered any proof that she had.
Because of their encounters with Curtis, the women say they have experienced a wide range of emotional stress, from bouts of uncontrollable crying to sleeplessness. They also say they've had trouble finding employment after being forced to confess to theft.
"These security people need to justify their existence by showing that they've caught people, whether they've done something or not," says Gene Mechanic, a Portland lawyer who is representing the four women. "If they get some people to confess, they've done their job."
So far, Safeway's only official response to the allegations has been an attempt to have the case moved from state to federal court. Bridget Flanagan, the store's Clackamas office spokeswoman, declined to comment, but WW has learned that Curtis is no longer a Safeway employee.
Since filing the case, Mechanic claims that more than a dozen others have approached him from throughout the Northwest about Safeway's internal security tactics, many of them recounting very similar experiences. Last week, Mechanic submitted an amended complaint that inserted two more plaintiffs into the suit. Although both are from Oregon, Mechanic says the problem is "definitely not unique to this region."