Florida Christmas shopper claims she was wrongly arrested

10:28 AM, Nov 27, 2012   |    comments
Antonia Bennett weeps as she recounts her arrest at Walmart on Thanksgiving night
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Pensacola, Florida (PNJ) -- For Antonia Angelena Bennett, post-Thanksgiving dinner shopping is a longtime tradition.

But this year, her Thursday night excursion with her 1-year-old daughter to Walmart on Blue Angel Parkway turned into a nightmare when she was was arrested after trying to lay claim, like several other customers, to a bargain-priced cellphone before it technically went on sale.

An Escambia County sheriff's deputy said in a report that Bennett created a disturbance while squabbling over the cellphone, and he told her to leave the store.

When she refused and wouldn't let go of the shopping cart with her baby in it, he wrestled her to the ground, then arrested her, according to the report.

But Bennett, 27, said Monday that she was simply trying to shop for Christmas and didn't raise her voice at all until a deputy took the phone from her, threatened use a stun gun on her if she didn't let go of the cart with her baby, hit her arm several times, threw her to the ground, put a knee in her back and handcuffed her.

But the stay-at-home mom said her biggest concern is that at least for some period of time her baby was apparently unattended.

She said her daughter was still in the shopping cart as a deputy walked her out of the store in handcuffs.

"I kept crying for her, and a complete stranger came up to me and said, 'Don't worry I'll take care of your baby," she reported in a complaint to the Sheriff's Office.

As she sat in the cruiser, she kept asking for her baby.

Finally, she said, two men, in plain clothes, wheeled her child out of the store and placed the shopping cart next to the cruiser in the chilly evening air. It was not clear if the two men were plain clothes officers, Walmart employees or customers.

Eventually, a deputy took over the child and was waiting when Bennett's husband arrived.

Under review

Sgt. Mike Ward, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said Monday that a store videotape will be reviewed in response to Bennett's complaint.

"It appears that the deputies actions were within Escambia County Sheriff's Office policy, but as a courtesy to Ms. Bennett the incident will be reviewed," he said.

He also said there "was no point when that child was left unattended."

"Ms. Bennett put herself into this position," he added.

The Bennetts are seeking help from the nonprofit Movement for Change, a local civil rights group, for what they see as mistreatment.

"I feel like officers responded to a customer service problem. However, they escalated the problem by treating me like a criminal instead of a paying customer," Bennett said.

Dianna Gee, a Walmart corporate spokeswoman in Bentonville, Ark., had little specific information about the incident but said said Walmart works with local law enforcement to ensure crowd management during big events.

"We are committed to the safety and security of our customers and associates," she said.

A shopping fiasco

The whole dispute began about 9 p.m. over a cellphone display.

Bennett said a Walmart employee indicated to another customer that he didn't care if cellphones were removed from a display case before the designated sale time of 10 p.m.

So Bennett said she put a cellphone in her cart and walked away, prompting another customer who had been waiting in line for the sale to hit her on the hand and still another customer to accuse her of stealing the phone.

Off-duty Sheriff's Deputy James Mann responded to complaints and located Bennett. He escorted her to the front of the store, where off-duty Deputy James Newton met her and eventually ordered her to leave the store.

She refused and asked to speak to a Walmart employee. Newton and Bennett both said he told her to "shut up."

But by Newton's account, Bennett had created a great deal of commotion by this time.

Back in the cellphone line, he reported, she "began cussing and screaming" at other people waiting in line.

Then, he said, when he located her in the store and tried to tell her that the phone could not yet be taken from the display case, "Bennett refused to listen to what was being instructed to her and continued to raise her voice, causing patrons who were entering and exiting the Walmart to stop and gather around," he wrote in his report.

Newton also said Bennett accused him of harassing her because she is black.

"She then informed me that I could not make her leave, that she was doing nothing wrong," Newton wrote.

At that point, Newton arrested her.

He said he told her to put her hands behind her back so he could handcuff her. She then grabbed the cart with both hands and refused to let go, he reported.

Newton managed to put one cuff on her left arm but was unable to cuff her right wrist.

"So I gave her three strikes to her right forearm, causing her hand to release from the buggy," Newton wrote.

Newton reported that he then forced Bennett, who's 5-foot-7 and weighs 130 pounds, to the floor to cuff her right wrist because she was continuing to struggle. She was then taken to a patrol car.

"I kept yelling and screaming for my baby," Bennett said.

Once in the cruiser, Bennett said, Newton told her she was arrested because she "talked too much."

She told him she didn't know that was against the law.

"He told me that when he told me to shut up, I should have shut my mouth," she said.

She was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting an officer without violence and trespassing after a warning. She was released on $1,500 bond at 2:20 a.m. Friday.

Husband's fear

Meanwhile, U.S. Navy Lt. Jonathan Bennett was home with the couple's 8-year-old and 2-year-old and a nonworking car when he received a garbled call from his wife.

He knew she'd gone to Walmart but had no idea if she was still there.

"All I knew was my wife was crying, and she needed help," he said.

"All I heard was screaming. I thought somebody was trying to kill her. I thought the worst."

The lieutenant made two calls to 911, but his conversations with the dispatcher were confusing, he said.

Eventually, he said, the dispatcher told him that his wife had been arrested. He couldn't immediately get a taxi, so a deputy was dispatched to pick him up. He left the two children with a neighbor.

About 45 minutes after his wife's arrest, he arrived at the store, found a deputy with the baby and took the child home.

On Monday, the couple still were shaking their heads over a shopping trip gone terribly wrong.

"I just don't understand how this can happen," Lt. Bennett said.

"I thought worst-case scenario, they would take away my phone and put it back on the cart," his wife said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be arrested."

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