BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – The news about the arrest of Nicole Leszczynski, 28, and her husband Marcin, 33, in the Safeway store on Beretania Street in Honolulu continues to make national and international news ranging from the Washington Post to the London Daily Mail – and it has even caught the attention of Steven Colbert.
The couple, who moved back to Hawaii from California just days ago with their 2 year old daughter Zofia, was arrested last week after forgetting to pay for a pair of sandwiches from the deli, on sale 2 for $5, which they ate before paying for $50 worth of groceries and leaving the store.
Nicole, who is 30 weeks pregnant, snacked on the sandwich because she was feeling faint, and she told Hawaii Reporter that in the small town where she is from, it is not unusual for people to eat something in the store and pay for it on the way out. She even saved the wrapper and a chicken bone that she found in the chicken salad sandwich to show the manager.
Nicole believes that the store employees and security guards were watching them because she said none of the checkout clerks, including their own and the one next to them, responded when she tried to strike up a conversation. The clerk next to them dropped a role of quarters that Marcin helped retrieve, and even then, the clerks did not look at them or say thank you. She thought at the time that it was the “weirdest” Safeway she’d ever been too.
Once Nicole, Marcin and Zofia were three feet out the door, they stopped to organize the groceries so they could get on the bus and go home. It was around 7 p.m. But the security guard stopped them and asked if they had a receipt for the sandwiches. Once they realized they had paid for everything but the sandwiches, they asked to go back into the store and pay the $2.5o for each. But instead, they were escorted upstairs with their toddler to the employee break room where they waited for another 4 hours for police to arrive. During that time, employees milled in and out of the break room and sat at a table with the family, eating their dinner without ever looking up, even though Nicole was “balling her eyes out.”
She said she kept calm for her daughter’s sake – and tried to keep her daughter entertained – until the police told the couple that the store was pressing charges, that they were going to be arrested and that their daughter would be picked up by Child Protective Services until the situation was resolved. When Zofia was escorted down the stairs and out of the store by a child welfare representative, Nicole says she “lost it.”
During that time, and as the situation kept escalating, two police, two security guards and the manager just stood there and looked at her saying nothing, Nicole said. She wondered how far it would go. They found out soon enough.
Nicole and Marcin were arrested, spent about an hour in jail, and were released around midnight on $50 bail. They had signed a 2-page form that Safeway gave them promising not to return to any Safeway for a year, so they could not pick up their groceries without a police escort.
Once they made it home on the bus, they spent the night awake in shock. Nicole said that they called Child Protective Service’s (CPS) abuse hotline continuously starting at 6 a.m. until about noon to get their daughter back.
Frustrated with the lack of response, they called a family attorney and learned troubling news: the state could keep their daughter for up to three business days and even over the weekend, and they would not know where she was, how to contact her or what she was being told. In addition, CPS workers were backlogged and hadn’t returned their calls.
Horrified that they might not see their daughter for several days, they headed down to Child Protective Service’s office in Kalihi where they planned to camp out until they got their daughter returned. On the way, they passed Hawaii News Now, a local television news station, and told reporter Jim Mendoza their story. He went with them to CPS to get some answers.
The little girl, who has never been separated from her parents over night before, had already spent 18 hours away from her parents, her home, her books, and her favorite stuffed animals (a stuffed duck and a Clifford dog). Her parents were very worried about how the toddler would react.
Nicole said it was only because of the news camera in the office that they were able to speak to a case worker. She helped them get their daughter back soon after. The little girl held tightly on to her mother’s neck after her parents picked her up at the designated McDonalds restaurant. She is normally a “great sleeper”, her mother said, sleeping through the night since she was 6 weeks old, but the little girl has woken up every night since asking her mother to hug her and not let go.
A Safeway spokesperson called Nicole yesterday to apologize and said the supermarket chain would not press charges for the loss of the $5 sandwiches, but Nicole said the man who called quickly blamed the police and state for what happened to them after they left the store. He said the employees at Safeway were just following procedure.
Nicole is a former U.S. Air Force linguist and her husband works in the medical field. They lived in Hawaii from 2005 to 2009 in Miliani and Kalihi and never had a problem like this, she said. They loved Hawaii and the people here so much, that they decided after living in California for the last two years, they would like to return and raise their children here in the islands.
The whole experience was unreal, embarrassing and kept getting “more and more sinister,” she said.
A retired policeman told Hawaii Reporter that some others stores here handle shoplifting differently and that they have someone inside the store who can ask about items before shoppers leave the premise, and therefore keep problems like this to a minimum.
There is a backlash against the family now, with comments under the local Star-Advertiser attacking Nicole and Marcin for everything from Nicole trying to use her pregnancy as an excuse to accusing them of being criminals – reactions that surprised the normally private couple.
Others have said they should sue the store, which she said they have not mentioned and have no plans to do.
She’s also taken aback by the national and international interest in her story.
While the couple just wants to put the incident behind them, Nicole said they did learn some lessons and hopefully they will be better people because of the experience. She also looks at it as an opportunity to bring much needed attention to societal problems in terms of how these kinds of situations are handled.
Nicole said that at every step along the way – from the clerks who could have asked about the wrapper in the cart, to the security guard and manager who could have let them pay the $5 after they realized their mistake, to the police who could have arrested them separately so their daughter could stay with one parent over night, to the state keeping the child for 18 hours without responding to the parents – someone could have stepped in to say that this has gone far enough – stop it. But no one spoke up. That, Nicole said, was the most surprising thing of all.