Safeway says it will not press charges against Honolulu couple whose arrests over unpaid sandwiches led state workers to take custody of their 2-year-old daughter, will review training for managers, employees

Cindy Allen

Cindy Allen

Nov 2, 2011 – Associated Press

HONOLULU , November 2, 2011 () – Safeway is declining to press charges against a Honolulu couple whose arrests over stolen sandwiches led state workers to take custody of their 2-year-old daughter and sparked nationwide outrage.

Safeway told Honolulu police Tuesday that it won't press charges against Marcin and Nicole Leszczynski, company spokeswoman Susan Houghton told The Associated Press. The couple were arrested last week when Nicole, who is 30 weeks pregnant, ate a sandwich while shopping and walked out without paying.

Their daughter Zofia was taken away by state Child Welfare Services officials. She was returned to her parents 18 hours later.

Karl Schroeder, a Safeway Inc. division president, called Nicole Leszczynski on Tuesday, and "apologized for what she's been through," Houghton said.

Houghton said management followed routine shoplifting procedure by contacting police, but Safeway regrets not foreseeing that doing so would cause a child to be separated from her parents.

"We want to do the right thing here," Houghton said. "Families are important to us."

Nicole said she was surprised to get the call because the incident was nearly a week ago.

"I feel relieved that the charges are being dropped and he kind of did make an apology," she said. "Now that we have our daughter back and we're not in jail, that's our biggest concern."

The incident at the store near downtown Honolulu is prompting Safeway to examine how managers and employees are trained. "In this case, it was not handled in the appropriate manner and we wanted to correct that," Houghton said.

Nicole, 28, and Marcin, 33, forgot to pay for two sandwiches that together cost $5. They were handcuffed and searched, and later released on $50 bail each.

The family had moved to an apartment near downtown Honolulu from Monterey, Calif., two weeks ago. Still settling in, they ventured out Wednesday to stock up on groceries, took the bus, got lost, and ended up at a Safeway supermarket, Nicole said.

Famished, the former Air Force staff sergeant openly munched on one while she shopped, saving the wrapper to be scanned at the register later. But she said they forgot to pay for the sandwiches as they checked out with about $50 worth of groceries.

"When the security guard questioned us, I was really embarrassed, I was horrified," Nicole told AP on Monday. They were led upstairs, where the couple expected to get a lecture, pay for the sandwiches, and be allowed on their way.

But store managers wouldn't allow them to simply pay, she said.

Four hours later, a police officer arrived and read them their rights. A woman from the Child Welfare Services arrived to take Zofia away.

Nicole called the incident "so horrifying. It seemed to escalate and no one could say, `this is too much.'"

The pregnant mother said she tried to keep her composure until Zofia, who turns 3 in December, left the store.

"I didn't want Zofia to be scared because she's never spent a night away from us. She didn't have her stuffed animal. She didn't have her toothbrush."

But as soon as her daughter left, "I got completely hysterical. I went to the bathroom and I threw up," she recalled.

A Honolulu police spokeswoman said it was routine procedure to call Child Welfare Services if a child is present when both parents are arrested.

The couple were handcuffed and driven separately to police headquarters a few blocks away, where they were searched, had their mug shots taken and then released after paying bail.

Nicole said that the morning after the arrest, she emailed Safeway to say not paying for the sandwiches was an honest mistake. "It was just a slip, a mommy-brain moment, I guess," she said. Houghton said Safeway accepts her assurance that she simply forgot to pay.

Nicole said she and her husband were told they were banned from the store for one year.

Houghton said she wasn't sure who would have told them that, but Safeway welcomes the family back.

Grocery shopping is a chore that now bring some anxiety, Nicole said, adding that she has read countless comments online criticizing her for eating before paying.

"I didn't know it was such a taboo thing," she said. "Where I grew up in a small town it's not seen as stealing for sure."

The Leszczynskis had hired a criminal defense lawyer to fight the charges but are unsure about whether to pursue legal action against Safeway.

"I haven't even considered it because I was just so worried about the charges," Nicole said. "I do feel like something went terribly wrong and we were abused in some way."

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