One night in March 2000, 51-year-old Oretha Roark, who is black, went with her husband to their local pharmacy inside the Bonner Springs Wal-Mart. Roark, who suffers from hypertension and diabetes, carried a prescription for an antibacterial mouthwash.
The pharmacy was busy. About the same time Roark dropped off her order, another woman left a prescription for a painkiller. J.D. Ehler, the pharmacist on duty, thought it looked like a photocopy altered to appear handwritten. Coworkers thought it looked suspicious, too, so Ehler called Bonner Springs police.
Pharmacy technician Jason Revel asked Ehler who had dropped off the bogus prescription; Ehler pointed out Oretha Roark. Revel then waited for police at the store entrance and kept watch, lest the Roarks make a break for it. When Roark picked up her mouthwash, Ehler realized he had incorrectly identified the bearer of the forged prescription. But when cops arrived, Revel led them through the store until they found the Roarks, still shopping.
In her complaint, Roark states that police searched, interrogated and humiliated her in front of other shoppers until Ehler told them they had the wrong woman. The real suspect was a white woman, also still in the store. Roark was free to go.
And she would have, but she felt a severe pain in her chest. She was taken to a bench, and paramedics were called. At Shawnee Mission Medical Center, doctors treated her in the emergency room for possible angina, then admitted her. She underwent quintuple-bypass heart surgery a few days later.
"I was angry. I was frustrated. Every adjective that you can think of, that's what I was," Roark said in her deposition. She and her husband, Robert, are suing Wal-Mart for $75,000. Arguing that Wal-Mart instigated her "detention" by police, Roark claims that the world's largest retailer triggered "existing and latent medical conditions." She is seeking lost wages and the cost of her medical treatment. Further, when Robert needed kidney dialysis while Oretha was laid up, the couple had to pay for someone to clean the house and to get Robert to and from his treatments.
Their suit alleges that Ehler and Revel got caught up trying to be heroes. Ehler could simply have asked Oretha Roark for a photo ID, the plaintiffs claim, or questioned her, but he chose not to. "Most people that try to pass forged prescriptions like that are criminals, and they are going to lie," Ehler said in a deposition. He did not seek assistance from store management or security before calling police.
Revel didn't talk to Roark before the cops showed up, either, telling attorneys later, "If I would have asked her and it was her, she probably would have left the store, so how else would we be able to catch the suspect?"
Roark sees herself as a victim of racial discrimination. After all, the suspect with the painkiller prescription was a white woman. Unlike Roark, she was taken to the back of the store and confronted in private. She was not arrested.
Wal-Mart attorney James Jarrow contends that the mistake was innocent. "There was a lot of confusion at that particular time," Ehler said in a deposition. "We were busy. There was a lot of things going on." The defendants say that Roark was never frisked or searched and that the plaintiffs are exaggerating the inconvenience of the police stop. They also point out that Roark was not in good health to begin with. The trial is set for Monday, December 3.
Court records don't mention Wal-Mart's policy regarding forged prescriptions, but the retailer advises employees confronting shoplifters to make sure they nab the right person: "You must assume that an individual who is falsely accused will bring legal action against our company."