Roberta A. Sharper, a 60-year-old high school science teacher, says a shopping trip to a Value City store turned into a nightmare after she spent $253 but was accused of stealing an $8 belt.
Mrs. Sharper said yesterday that security guards at the chain's Catonsville store falsely charged her with trying to steal her own belt, which they said belonged to the store and was worth $7.99.
She said three guards trapped her in a room for three hours and refused to allow her to leave until she signed a document saying the belt wasn't hers.
Mrs. Sharper filed a lawsuit against Value City Department Stores Inc. in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday, charging that guards falsely arrested her, invaded her privacy by videotaping her in a dressing room, and confiscated a belt that belonged to her.
She said that although she was wearing dressy clothes, she was suspected by the three white guards of stealing because she is black.
"I'm sure it was stereotyping," she said. "They feel that if you're black, you're capable of doing something like that."
Bob Roberts, an assistant manager at the Catonsville store, said that he was not familiar with the incident and that he could not discuss the store's security policies.
The Columbus, Ohio, firm's general counsel was out of the country and could not be reached for comment. Robert Pavenner, director of loss prevention, did not return phone calls yesterday.
Mrs. Sharper, of the 3700 block of Nortonia Road in Baltimore, has taught 24 years at Frederick Douglass High School and also works at the Harford Institute and at the University of Maryland Research Center.
She said she was humiliated when she was taken into a secluded room by guards as other customers watched.
"I used to tell my students that if you do the right thing and stay with the right crowd, no one is going to harass you," she said. "This has changed my mind. I'm not so naive now."
The lawsuit gave the following account of the incident:
Mrs. Sharper entered the store at 6 p.m. March 15, 1991, and bought $16 worth of costume jewelry. After the purchase, she took off the earrings she had been wearing because they were uncomfortable and put on the new pair. She resumed shopping.
She selected seven dresses and tried them on in the dressing room. Two of them had no belt, so she took the belt from her skirt and wrapped it around a dress to see how well the dress would fit. After trying on the dresses, she put on her own clothes, including the belt.
Mrs. Sharper then went to the store's belt rack and picked out two belts for the new dresses. She paid $237 for the items and was leaving the store when a guard approached and told her to go with him to the store's lost-merchandise room.
She initially thought the guard was accusing her of stealing the earrings, and she said she had a receipt for them. Two more guards came into the room and asked her about the belt she was wearing before taking it from her.
They told her they had viewed her on video removing the belt from a garment in the dressing room. One of the guards brought a loose price tag that read $7.99, which he said had come from the belt.
Mrs. Sharper told them the evident wear on the belt made it obvious that it was not new and that it belonged to her. The guards, however, threatened to call the police and refused to let her speak with the store's sales clerks or its manager.
Now hungry and tired -- she had worked eight hours that day -- she agreed shortly before 10 p.m. to sign documents saying the belt was not hers. She told the guards her lawyer would clear up the matter later. No charges were filed against her.
Mrs. Sharper said she has not gone to a Value City store since. She is demanding in her suit that the chain return her belt or one of equal value.
She also said she remains angry about being accused after guards watched her undress on videotape.
"I'm sure there are better methods of inventory control," Mrs. Sharper said.
"You don't have to have men watching women on videotape. I think it's degrading and disgusting."