Walmart levies lifetime ban against gay couple

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Walmart (WMT) may position itself as the store for the common man, but sometimes it can act downright elitist. In fact, it even goes so far as to issue lifetime bans on certain customers. The most famous recipient of the ultimate shunning is actress Megan Fox, who, according to some sources, was permanently banished from Wally World because of a shoplifting incident when she was a teenager. Now, thanks to a pack of lighters, two upset children and a ham-handed response from the store's employees, a Chicago-area gay couple, Joe Paolucci and Thomas Hitchcock, have also been blacklisted.

According to a report in the South Bend Tribune, the couple, both of whom are attorneys, were shopping at a Niles, Ill Mi. Walmart with their two adopted sons. Hitchcock shepherded the boys through a checkout line while Paolucci picked up a few last-minute items at a self-service register. Store video surveillance shows that Paolucci scanned all the items in his possession, put them in a grocery bag, paid and left. However, as he met up with Hitchcock and the boys on the way out of the store, the group was stopped by security. The in-store guards asked Paolucci if he had purchased a pack of lighters. Paolucci said yes, handed over the bag, and showed his receipt, the newspaper reported. Unfortunately, things didn't end there.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. According to the paper, Walmart claims that the two men became "uncooperative," while Paolucci and Hitchcock say that the store's employees were verbally abusive and vulgar. The pair admitted to the newspaper that they fought against being placed in an in-store "security room," because they were worried about what would happen when they were out of sight of the sales floor. They then asked store employees to call the police.

When the police arrived, the pair were placed in the backseats of separate squad cars while their sons were placed in the care of Walmart store personnel. After 45 minutes and a review of the store's security tapes, the couple was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, Walmart banned the two for life. Store personnel warned Paolucci and Hitchcock that they must leave the premises immediately or they would be arrested for trespassing, the couple told the newspaper. As an added smack in the face, Walmart later sent them a $158.40 bill for the lighters (this was TEN TIMES the price of the original lighters).

It seems strange that Walmart decided to push the issue this far. In 2006, the retailer announced that it would only press charges against shoplifters if the items in question were worth $25 or more. Given that Paolucci's lighters cost a little less than $16, it's surprising that the store's management decided to detain the pair, particularly given that they were regular customers and owned a business in the area.

Many members of the media have latched upon the Paolucci/Hitchcock affair as evidence that Walmart may be homophobic. The pair claims that, while they were in custody, Walmart security harassed their sons and made disparaging remarks about their lifestyle.

They also claim that the police were less than helpful. According to the couple, the police refused to take statements from the boys, and referred Paolucci and Hitchcock to Child Protective Services. After extensive phone calls to the Sheriff's Department, the pair managed to get their sons interviewed, but the law enforcement officers and the county prosecutor refused to cooperate when Paolucci and Hitchcock requested that they proffer charges against Walmart.

The pair told the South Bend Tribune that they believe the Sheriff's office has refused to act because of questions about its handling of the event. Given the police report cited in the newspaper's story, there is also some evidence to suggest that Hitchcock and Paolucci are not completely without blame. While the report definitively concludes that Paolucci was not shoplifting, it also states that the pair were "causing a scene, being very loud [...] while yelling and swearing at Walmart security." In context, it seems possible that the pair's detention was due in part to their own behavior.

Walmart's heavy-handed treatment of its customers has been an issue before. In addition to the highly-publicized Fox banning and other shoplifting-related bans, people have allegedly been put on the blacklist for taking disparaging photos near the store, pretending to be union organizers, and even resembling Osama bin Laden!

Note: Earlier, this story stated that the Walmart in question was located in Niles, Illinois. It is actually in Niles, Michigan. We have corrected the piece to reflect this mistake and apologize to anyone who was inconvenienced by the error.

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