WESTMINSTER -- John A. Gebhardt, a 51-year-old former marketing executive, told a Circuit Court jury last week that shoplifting charges filed against him in October were the result of an overzealous Caldor security guard who refused to admit he made a mistake.
The jury didn't buy the story.
After nearly three hours of deliberation over two days, the four-man, eight-woman panel convicted Gebhardt on Friday on one charge of misdemeanor theft.
Gebhardt was shopping in the Cranberry Mall store on the
evening of Oct. 18 to pick up some hardware supplies, batteries and videocassettes. As he wandered from the hardware aisle to the battery aisle and then to the video aisle, he carried with him a Fashion Bug shopping bag.
It was the shopping bag, testimony showed, that first aroused suspicion in the mind of security guard Kevin Niebuhr, a part-time guard who is a Northern District police officer in Baltimore.
During the one-day trial, Niebuhr said he saw Gebhardt place the hardware, batteries and Sony videocassettes in the shopping bag before he headed toward the store's exit.
As he walked past the cash registers, Gebhardt was stopped and told that he was under arrest for shoplifting, Niebuhr said.
The merchandise was worth $27.92.
While Gebhardt agreed that he was stopped by Niebuhr and that he did have the merchandise in his possession, he told the jury that he was on his way to get a hand cart.
"The guy just grabbed me, shoved my arms behind my back and put handcuffs on me," Gebhardt said from the stand. "I looked at this man, who had wild eyes, a red face and a throbbing neck. I was scared."
To Gebhardt, who was unemployed at the time of the Caldor shopping trip, the encounter was humiliating and intimidating.
"I was in handcuffs, shoved into a small office, and I was scared to say anything," he testified.
Gebhardt has had no other brushes with the law, testimony showed. His wife and his pastor told the jury of the man's honesty.
"I have good confidence with Mr. Gebhardt's honesty and integrity," said Shelton L. Smith, pastor of the Church of the Open Door. "You know, sometimes we have people coming in that you know are a few pieces short of a puzzle. The Gebhardts are a model family."
Model family or not, Gebhardt shouldn't have put anything in his shopping bag that night, the prosecutor said.
"It seems to me you've got a situation where the defendant made a mistake," said Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III. "It's not about how wonderful an employee, father and husband he is. It's about what happened at 8 o'clock in that Caldor store. Does that make him a bad person? No, it just means on that particular day, he broke the law."
In his closing arguments, Gebhardt's attorney, David L. Johnson, told the jury that it would be unfair to convict "this just man."
When Gebhardt is sentenced Aug. 17 by Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr., he could receive 18 months in prison and be fined $100.