PA prank at Washington Township Walmart has customers riled
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
By Lucas K. Murraylmurray@sjnewsco.com
WASHINGTON TWP. A Sunday evening shopping trip turned sour quickly for customers at the Walmart in Turnersville when someone used the store's public address system to broadcast a racially offensive message.
Sheila Ellington, of Williamstown was at the self-checkout of the Walmart at about 6:45 p.m. with her neighbor Patricia Covington. The pair were finishing up their shopping when the inappropriate message was made.
"Just as I finished bagging my purchases there was an announcement that said Ôattention Walmart customers, all black people must leave the store now,'" Ellington explained. "Once I heard that, it was almost like a hush over the whole store momentarily because no one had believed what had taken place."
The two women made their way over to the customer service counter where a group of people had quickly assembled.
After about 10 minutes, Ellington said the manager of the store emerged and told them that he was aware of the situation and that store security was reviewing security tape footage to try to find who had used the public address, or PA, system.
Police responded and Ellington, who is on the executive committee of the Gloucester County Minority Coalition and an attorney who specializes in cases involving bias, told officers she'd like the incident to be reported as a bias incident as well as harassment.
More than a dozen black people were in the store at the time.
Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office Spokesman Bernie Weisenfeld said an active, ongoing investigation is currently underway.
"It's being treated as a suspected bias crime in which the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office is assisting Washington Township," Weisenfeld said, adding the county's victim-witness coordinator has contacted the store manager to offer counseling service to those in the store who were affected by this.
Through it all, Ellington said the police and Walmart management acted in a professional manner and have taken the matter very seriously.
"It appears as though whatever security systems they have in place have to be addressed by the corporate office," she said. "Whatever they need to do to find the person that is responsible, they need to be prosecuted."
Someone may have utilized an in-store phone to gain access to it, but that could not be confirmed. Ellington's fear is that someone could have just as easily caused a panic by yelling "fire."
Ashley Hardie, spokeswoman for Walmart, referred questions about the investigation to local law enforcement, but did convey the company's regret surrounding the circumstances of the incident.
"Clearly this is completely unacceptable to both Walmart and to our customers," Hardie added. "We are reviewing our systems to prevent this from happening in the future."
The two women haven't had a problem at the Walmart in the past. Covington said up until Sunday, she would shop there just about every day.
"I couldn't believe I heard what I actually heard," Covington said. "I'm just pretty upset. You can't imagine how much time I spent there. I can't envision walking through those doors again, at least not yet."
It will take some time for her to return. Covington is hurt by what she experienced, but doesn't hold a grudge against the store for what could be considered by some to be a sick prank.
In the meantime she'll shop somewhere else and mail the letter she wrote Monday to Walmart's corporate office.
"I'm not sure it will make any difference," Covington said. "I just have to get it out. Just have to say the things that I feel." http://www.nj.com/gloucester/index.ssf?/base/news-5/1268712607256480.xml&coll=8