Advertisement
News

Where's Paramount's sense of justice?

Is there such a thing as corporate shame? The executives who run Kings Dominion -- which is owned by Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, which is a multibillion-dollar communications and entertainment conglomerate -- know how to make money, but do they know how to make things right? Do they have a sense of justice and decency?

I come to these tall questions this week because of what happened to two of Paramount's customers -- a 46-year-old day care provider from Baltimore and a 25-year-old college student from Prince George's County -- on a Saturday in May 1994.

Advertisement

Octavia Eaton and Stephanie Austin did not know each other at the time. But they have a few things in common: They both went to Paramount's Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia on the same spring day, they both had a good time and, before day was done, they were both accused of being liars, forgers and thieves.

Both Eaton and Austin were accused by the park security force of having passed bad checks in Kings Dominion a week earlier. (In fact, Eaton was accused of being the "leader" of a gang of bad-check artists.)

Advertisement

Both had their pleas of innocence rejected and their verifiable alibis ignored. Both were handcuffed. And fingerprinted. And searched. Both went to jail until someone posted bail.

Eaton and Austin have something else in common: They both were exonerated 11 months later, though they probably could have been exonerated the day afterthey were charged.

In pending civil suits filed by the women against Paramount, it is alleged that park security officials identified genuine suspects in the May 1994 bad checks the day after the same officials had sent Eaton and Austin to jail. And, it is further alleged, Paramount did not make this exculpatory information known to either woman until the very eve of their criminal trials in Hanover County, Va.

So similar are the Eaton and Austin cases that I could describe one to convey the injustice done in both. For starters, let me tell you about Octavia Eaton.

She's a widow who lives in the Forest Park section of Northwest Baltimore. She's had a licensed day care operation in her home for more than two decades. She has a 25-year-old son named John and two adopted children -- Patrice, 18, and Brian, 6. Eaton's husband, John, died four years ago. Eaton is a Jehovah's Witness and attends services at the Kingdom Hall on Ridgewood Avenue.

In fact, that's where she was May 15, 1994.

The date is important. That's the day some bad paper circulated through Kings Dominion. At least two women wrote bad checks, running into several hundred dollars, for park admission, Kings Dominion scrip known as "Scooby Bucks" and various merchandise. Six days later, on May 21, the park's security officers were on alert for the black women who had written the checks. Employees of the park were offered $250 rewards for steering security officials to suspects.

One of the check writers, identified in court documents as "Catherine May," was said to be a "full figured, African American woman." The identification card this "Catherine May" used at the time she wrote the bad checks described her as 5-feet-6 and 195 pounds.

Advertisement

Octavia Eaton is black. She stands 5-feet-9 inches. She weighs 420 pounds. On May 21, when she took her children and some family friends to Kings Dominion, she rented a battery-powered scooter to get around.

Eaton was sitting on that scooter, near a restroom, when a security officer approached.

"He took me through a gate to a building with a lot of police and security stuff," Eaton recalls. "I had a seat in the office. Then this security officer says, 'We have proof you were in the park writing bad checks.' I said, 'I don't write checks because I'm illiterate. My son, John, he writes all the checks for me and, before my husband died, he wrote all our checks.' Then this security guard says, 'You're lying.' He called me a liar several times. He said, 'I been a police officer for nine years and I can tell a liar when I see one.' "

Kings Dominion security questioned Octavia Eaton in that office for several hours. They claimed they had witnesses -- young concessions workers, also employed by Kings Dominion -- to prove she was the check writer. Officers rejected Eaton's alibi for May 15 -- that she had attended services at Kingdom Hall in Baltimore -- though her adult son and his girlfriend corroborated it independently. A representative of the Hanover County Sheriff's Office searched Eaton's purse and the motel room she had rented for the night and found nothing incriminating.

"I was told, 'If you admit writing the checks, we'll let you go, but you can't come back into the park for two years, ' " Eaton recalls. She refused the offer.

So, some time after midnight, Eaton was taken in handcuffs to the local jail. Her adopted son, Brian, who was 4 at the time (and hungry from not having eaten for hours), wept when he saw her being led to a sheriff's department cruiser.

Advertisement

When she appeared before a magistrate, Eaton was called the "leader" of a gang of women who had written bad checks in Kings Dominion. After hearing that assertion -- from the lips of the park's chief of security at 2 a.m. -- the magistrate set bail at $1,000.

In jail, Eaton recalls, there were no free beds. She was given a flimsy floor mat on which to sleep. Her adult son, John, scrambled to find enough cash to post his mother's bail. Eaton was released just before noon.

Unknown to her, the same day -- May 22, 1994 -- a black woman went to Kings Dominion and attempted to write additional bad checks, using the name and identification card of a "Catherine May." She fled before she could be arrested that day. Kings Dominion security recovered her check and I.D. card.

That information, which would have helped Octavia Eaton prove her innocence, was withheld from her defense lawyers for almost a year -- until a preliminary hearing April 14, 1995, just two weeks before Eaton's scheduled criminal trial in Hanover County. When the prosecution's evidence was presented to Circuit Judge Richard H. C. Taylor, he dismissed the case.

Just like that. And no one from Paramount ever said they were sorry.

Not that it would have made a difference.

Advertisement

By the time she was cleared of the criminal charges, Octavia Eaton had been on an emotional roller coaster ride. She had made numerous trips to Virginia to consult with her attorney, to sit for handwriting analyses, to appear at court hearings. She became ill from stress, and was so terribly distracted from her day care business that she lost most of her clients. She tapped into the savings her husband had left to pay legal and household bills. It's all gone now, she says.

Eaton has since filed for bankruptcy. Her civil suit against Paramount, asking for millions of dollars in damages for wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution, was moved from Baltimore to Richmond. (A federal judge here didn't want to inconvenience Paramount's Virginia attorneys, I guess).

I'll tell you what's happening in Eaton's quest for justice, as well as Stephanie Austin's, and have some word from Paramount in Friday's column.

Pub Date: 10/23/96


Advertisement