BY TRONE DOWD
A second senior citizen from Southeast Queens has accused the Unique clothing thrift store on Jamaica Avenue of conducting questionable security practices.
In September, the PRESS of Southeast Queens reported that 77-year-old Thelma Hook, a retired grandmother from Jamaica, was allegedly pulled aside at the store, accused of stealing and coerced into signing a confession. When Hook refused to sign the written confession, security officers allegedly confiscated the shoes on her feet, forcing her to walk home barefoot in the rain along the busy corridor.
This week, the PRESS of Southeast Queens spoke with 74-year-old Julia Scott, of Springfield Gardens. Scott, who is a frequent patron of the Unique thrift store, said that she was pulled aside and allegedly wrongly accused of shoplifting on July 11. Scott said that she has made a hobby out of visiting the Jamaica Avenue thrift store since she retired from her career as a New York State court officer in 1998.
“In all my life, I have never, ever been stopped or accused of stealing anything,” the grandmother of five said. “I am not a thief.”
She recalled that her July 11 visit to the store had been unlike any other. She said that she checked in her roller cart at the Jamaica Avenue entrance of the Unique Bazaar Mall before shopping at the thrift store.
Upon completing her purchase, she enacted her typical routine of heading to the restroom before waiting for her bus home. This time, however, she was met by two security guards—a man and a woman—as she was leaving the bathroom.
“They were apparently waiting for me to come out of the ladies room,” she said. “They told me that they needed to escort me back to Unique. I asked, ‘For what?’ They told me that they couldn’t say why, only that their supervisor had asked them to do so.”
The PRESS of Southeast Queens was able to confirm that Scott was escorted to the same room where security allegedly attempted to coerce Hook into a false confession. However, Scott specified that the two security guards who escorted her were accommodating when walking her back to the store. This account varies drastically from one provided by Hook, who said that an officer in the store approached her, allegedly told her to “shut up” and accused her of being “nothing but an old thief.”
Once escorted to the room, Scott said that the officers stood by the door as she was confronted by a manager. The manager allegedly asked for Scott’s receipt, but wouldn’t tell her why he was asking to see it.
“I told him I wasn’t a thief and asked him what he was looking for,” she said. “But he wouldn’t tell me what he thought I had stolen. That’s when I got annoyed. If he had told me that he thought I stole—shoes or a belt or a jacket, anything. But he couldn’t even tell me that.”
Scott voiced her frustration regarding the manager’s lack of communication as he studied her receipt. She opened her shopping bags to further prove that she did not steal anything from the thrift store.
“I told him, ‘There’s not a thing in here that I cannot afford to buy,’” she said. “I explained that I shopped there all the time. I explained that I was retired and I go there to get out of the house.”
It wasn’t until Scott pulled out her badge and shield from her days as a court officer that the manager said that she could leave the room. Following the incident, she wrote a letter to the business recounting the confrontation. A copy of that letter was sent to the PRESS of Southeast Queens.
Scott said that a friend sent her the article recalling Thelma Hook’s story that was published in the Sept. 22 edition of the PRESS of Southeast Queens due to the similarities between the two accounts. Scott said that after reading the article, she believes that Unique is profiling the elderly.
“I have seen younger people leave the store and the alarm rings without security guards stopping them,” she wrote in her initial letter to the PRESS of Southeast Queens. “A class-action lawsuit should be brought against Unique and/or the security agency.”
The PRESS of Southeast Queens previously reported that Jamaica attorney Kareem Vessup had been working with community activist Kevin Livingston and Thelma Hook in building a case against the thrift store. According to Vessup, all 11 Unique stores in the New York and New Jersey area employ security officers from a Brooklyn-based company known as AF Security Solutions. Both the PRESS of Southeast Queens and Vessup’s office spoke to a manager at the Unique store, who told both the paper and attorney that they would be put in touch with AF Solutions. However, since Hook’s story was published two months ago, neither has been contacted by Unique or AF Solutions.
The PRESS of Southeast Queens was unable to confirm the full names of the supervisor or officer. Scott said that she was also unable to get the name of the manager who questioned her in July.
On Thursday morning, the PRESS of Southeast Queens visited the Unique Thrift store. The manager who had previously taken the paper’s information refused to speak with a reporter and walked away. Upon being asked for a comment regarding Scott’s allegations, he said that he had no comment. The PRESS of Southeast Queens left contact information with an employee sitting in the store’s office and again asked to be contacted by AF Solutions.
The incidents involving Hook and Scott are not the first involving complaints against the store. In 2015, the PRESS of Southeast Queens reported that a pregnant employee of the store was fired after following her doctor’s orders to refrain from lifting heavy objects and was thereafter relieved of her job. She later filed a discrimination lawsuit against the store.