Eyes on the Reprisal

Racial bias alleged in unwarranted detention of two black, elderly women

What we have here is a failure to communicate. We have other problems as well -- mistaken identities, innuendo masquerading as gospel, an abusive cop, unwarranted detention, dead and disabled witnesses, a trumped-up charge, justice run amok.

It all swirls kinetically amid a vortex of racial tension.

The protagonists are Ann Priestly, a 72-year-old Sun City West resident, and her niece, Evelyn Patterson, 65, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both are African American. Both are polite, reserved and diminutive. They are model citizens; no trouble with the law, no rabble-rousing. Priestly works as an anesthesia technician at Boswell Memorial Hospital. Patterson, the mother of eight, is a retired civil servant.

Rand Carlson

Their tormentor is Jeff Manka, a detective for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office who moonlights as a security officer for a Dillard's department store.

We should not overlook Dillard's itself as a player. The Arkansas-based chain has a record of wretched relations with people of color.

Priestly and Patterson became criminals on November 17, 1999. Patterson was four days into a visit with her aunt. They spent November 16 doing touristy things in Sedona. The 17th was reserved for Priestly's true passion -- shopping. The two left Priestly's residence about 10 a.m. for Arrowhead Towne Center. They browsed at JC Penney, and Priestly bought some clothing. From there, they went to Dillard's. Priestly tried on and purchased four more items of clothing -- $109.14 worth. It was about 1:30 p.m. when the pair left. They intended to return to Priestly's home for lunch. They were hungry.

They exited the store toting shopping bags from Dillard's and JC Penney. As they trod the mall concourse, they were stopped by a peculiar-looking man. It was Manka, who looked like anything but a cop. He was dressed in a tee shirt, sneakers and cut-off pants.

"All of a sudden a man came up to me from nowhere and caught me on my left side here, pressed into my arm -- I hollered, 'Turn me aloose,'" Priestly testified at her trial. "And I hollered. And by that time, she [Patterson] got ready to kick him, and then he pulls out a badge."

Patterson testified: "I saw this man holding -- had my aunt by the arm like this, and, you know, like you'd pick up a kid almost by one arm . . . and she was hollering, 'Turn me loose. You're hurting me, you're hurting me.'"

Manka believed Priestly and Patterson had shoplifted. He asked Priestly for a receipt.

He testified that he "displayed my badge and told them I was Detective Manka with the MCSO. She told me that she did -- had a receipt. The other woman [Patterson] that was with them started yelling, 'Are you accusing us of stealing?' They kind of both chimed in at that point and I just kept saying, you know, 'I just need to see the receipt if you have a receipt.'

". . . After we went back and forth like that for just a couple of seconds, the other woman just said, you know, 'We didn't do anything wrong. I'm outta here.' And she turned to walk away.

". . . I grabbed that woman by the right arm. . . . As soon as I grabbed her, she tried to jerk away, and hit me on the arm, told me to let go of her. And at that point, the woman in the purple dress stepped up, and told me to let go of her friend, and then I grabbed her."

The women claim Manka was not so officious as his testimony suggests. He was loud and hostile and accused them of stealing. Although he quickly flashed a badge, they weren't convinced he was a cop -- and they reacted accordingly. The receipt was in Priestly's purse, and she was loath to open it up to a stranger, someone Patterson described as a "street person."

This was actually the secondinstance of mistaken identity.

The first was Manka's. He began watching Priestly and Patterson inside the store after a sales clerk told him, "That woman's back." She was referring to a black woman who had acted suspiciously two nights before.

"She [the clerk] had called me a couple of nights prior to this and told me that there was a woman that had left her area and probably had stolen five dresses from her," testified Manka.

He believed Priestly was "that woman." His suspicions grew, he said, as Priestly brazenly took clothing from a rack, went to a fitting room, then repeated the process. Such behavior would seem to implicate any shopper. Manka lost track of the women and didn't see Priestly make her purchases. Instead, he waited for them near the store exit.

Priestly wasn't the woman from two evenings prior; in any case, there is absolutely no evidence anything had been stolen at that time. (Two sales clerks who were potential witnesses were not heard at the trial. The woman who made the phone call to Manka had died, the detective said, while another had become ill with Valley fever and was no longer working.)

Patterson said Manka was bellicose from the beginning. "Well, he was accusing . . . he said, 'I've been watching you, and you've been stealing, and you were just in here and you stole five dresses,' and he was just going on and on and on.

"He was holding on to both of us. In fact, I had to pull back, and I told him, I said, 'I can walk. Just turn me loose.' And then he said, 'Don't jerk away again,' because he kept saying, 'I'll slam you to the floor. Do this and I'll slam you to the floor.'

"My aunt told him, says, 'I bought everything I have,' because he asked for a receipt, and she says, 'We can go back in the store and go to the sales lady, and we can show the receipt then.' And he said, 'Okay.'"

Once inside the store, however, Manka took them to a different direction, toward his security office.

"Both women started grabbing fixtures and tables, and you know in an attempt to either stay there or not go any farther," Manka testified. "They were actually pulling displays down.

"I even told the people that were standing by that were watching this happen that I was a police officer and that it was okay, because there was such a commotion going on. I believed that people thought that I was probably trying to assault these women."

Priestly: "Well, we ran to the store and instead of going to the counter where the sales lady was, he was pulling me this way. When he did that, I grabbed onto the fixture. I didn't want to go to his room. I didn't know where he was carrying me. . . . I held on to the fixture and that way I thought probably the manager would come and see what's going on here . . .

"That's why I was talking. I wasn't fussing, I wasn't cursing, I wasn't swearing. . . . And he just kept telling me to shut up, shut up, and I'm trying to explain."

A mall security guard arrived and persuaded the women to accompany Manka to the security office. He took Priestly inside and had Patterson stand in the doorway. He seized the Dillard's bag and dumped the contents on the floor but found no receipt.

Patterson said that when her aunt reached for her purse to retrieve the receipt, "He grabbed her. . . . And he pushed her up against this table, and he started twisting her arms up behind her back. And that's when I started going toward my aunt. And I told him, I said, 'You're hurting her. You're hurting her.'"

Manka slapped Priestly in handcuffs.

He discovered the proper receipt for the Dillard's items in Priestly's purse, then turned to Patterson and asked who she was. She told him.

"And then he said, 'Well, where do you have any ID or proof? You might be lying,'" Patterson testified. "And so I got up, because I left my purse in the room, and when I went to go get my purse, he grabbed -- he snatched my purse and he said, 'Uh-uh, I'm going to handcuff you.' And he held me with his body while he pulled my arms behind my back, and he handcuffed me. And then he took me back out and pushed me in a chair. And then he started going through my purse, and he went in my wallet, and everything, and got my driver's license."

Patterson had the JC Penney bag with her. "He grabbed the JC Penney bag and he said, 'Where did you steal this from?' And I looked at him and I said, 'Nobody stole that.' I said, 'We purchased that.' And then he said, 'Oh, you stole it,' and then he just took his hand and ripped the plastic bag off the suit, and I told him, I said, 'We have a receipt for that.'"

The Penney receipt was also in Priestly's purse.

Patterson: "He got the receipt out, and he checked the receipt with the tag. He saw it was the same. And he said, 'Well, you still could have stole it.'"

Patterson could only respond to such nonsense with sarcasm: "And I said, 'Well,' I said, 'now when you steal things, you just pick out what you want and you walk up to the cashier, and they just bag it for you.'"

The detective was determined to justify his manhandling of the innocent women. He called JC Penney to verify that the item in that bag hadn't been stolen.

Manka accused Patterson of stealing the tee shirt she wore. But after inspecting it, he told her, "We don't carry this brand. No, maybe you didn't steal this here."

The hectoring intensified. "He said, 'I'll bet you've been in jail three or four times for stealing,' and he was accusing me, but I was just sitting there, and finally . . . I said, 'Listen. I don't steal, I work. I work. I've just retired from a job, and prior to that job I worked for the county. I don't have to steal.' And then his attitude kind of changed," Patterson said.

Still, Manka called a female sales associate to frisk Priestly and Patterson and check under their clothing to see whether they had merchandise hidden there.

After holding the women for nearly three hours, Manka realized he had made an egregious mistake. But he couldn't simply apologize and turn them loose.

He exacerbated his errors by citing them for disorderly conduct.

And he wasn't finished.

Priestly: "After he had been humiliating me, intimidated me, and said I was going to be arrested . . . he took my picture and had me sign this, and he said, 'You are never to come back into Dillard's store again. If you do, you will be arrested.'"

Priestly had held a Dillard's credit card for more than 20 years.

If you believe the justice courts are rubber stamps for law enforcement, this case will do nothing to assuage your view. A disorderly conduct charge generally involves the writing of a ticket. Manka prepared a full-blown investigative report to support his actions.

Justice of the Peace Lex Anderson of Peoria listened to the evidence and perfunctorily convicted both Priestly and Patterson of disorderly conduct. He fined each $305.

Ronald Fineberg, the women's attorney, had argued that because Manka had no probable cause to stop the women, the subsequent charge of disorderly conduct was moot. If the women were disorderly, Fineberg said, Manka had caused them to be.

The prosecutor said it didn't matter that the women hadn't shoplifted. Just because they were innocent of one crime didn't excuse them from committing another.

They could have paid the fines and put the ignominious episode behind them. But neither woman will tolerate a criminal conviction on their otherwise spotless records. The case has been appealed to Maricopa County Superior Court. Judge Michael Wilkinson has it under advisement.

"To pay the fine is to compensate them for violating these women's rights," says Tim Ryan, a member of the legal team now representing Priestly and Patterson. "It's an admission that as an African-American woman, you should know your place."

Ryan, a former prosecutor, calls disorderly conduct the "oops statute," a hammer that officers employ to cover up their own abuse. He says Manka "abused his authority, engaged in unusually outrageous conduct and then cited his victims for complaining about it."

In addition to their appeal, Priestly and Patterson are suing Manka, the Sheriff's Office, the county and Dillard's, claiming that Manka violated their constitutional rights.

Manka did not respond to interview requests. Sheriff's spokeswoman Lisa Allen says Manka, a seven-year veteran, has not been disciplined for any on-duty activities and has several commendations in his file. But she adds that he was once suspended without pay for three days for conduct unbecoming an officer. It had something to do with a domestic dispute.

It appears that Manka's actions did not meet standards set out in Dillard's own security policy. That policy, which was not entered as evidence during the trial, allows security personnel to detain a suspect "only when there is little or no doubt that a crime has been committed. . . . The person must be observed in the actual removal and/or concealment of merchandise. If merchandise is being taken into a fitting room, you must establish a concealment by observing the customer and the merchandise count and description taken into and from the fitting room. . . . You should only approach a customer after you believe that merchandise has actually been removed or concealed. . . . If you are suspicious of a customer's motives/behavior, but the guidelines outlined in the apprehension section have not been met, you should not approach the customer."

Manka apparently is not the only Dillard's employee who flouts this policy. African Americans have long complained about the treatment they receive in Dillard's, which operates 338 stores in 29 states. Locally and in other states, grievances about Dillard's have accrued at an alarming pace.

Billy Mitchell won a $612,000 judgment from Dillard's after he was falsely accused in 1992 of trying to pass a counterfeit or stolen $100 bill at the Paradise Valley Mall store. Mitchell, who was 17 at the time, was buying a pair of pants when he was detained by an off-duty Phoenix police officer working in security for Dillard's. The officer approached him and said, "Come with me and don't try anything stupid." The guard led Mitchell to a room, accusing him of possessing "counterfeit or stolen money." He paraded Mitchell in handcuffs through the store. Mitchell wasn't charged with a crime in the incident, because the bill wasn't counterfeit.

In 1997, a federal jury awarded $1.56 million to a black woman who said she had been stopped and searched by Dillard's security guards because she is black. Her lawyers said the Dillard's store in Overland Park, Kansas, systematically placed black customers under intense surveillance even when they exhibited no suspicious behavior.

A slew of lawsuits and complaints to the NAACP have piled up against the Little Rock, Arkansas-based chain.

Dillard's officials declined to comment.

"It's nothing new to walk into Dillard's and immediately know that you are followed or watched," says the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP. "I don't know when they'll learn."

Tillman says Dillard's is not the only retailer that seems to target blacks. But he wonders why, given the chain's record, it doesn't err on the side of caution.

"We're tired of being apologized to when these people violate our rights and humiliate us," Tillman says.

Manka testified that the women's race was not a factor in his decision to detain them.

Deputy County Attorney Katharine Leisch told Judge Wilkinson last week that Priestly's and Patterson's bias claims amount to "trivialization of truly horrific treatment that African Americans in this country have faced."

"All they had to do was show him their receipt," Leisch says.

On the other hand, all Jeff Manka had to do was show some human decency.

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