The Unique store located at 162-10 Jamaica Avenue. According to Hook’s Attorney Kareem Vessup, the actions taken against the 77-year-old woman are alledgedly common practice at many of their stores. Photo by Trone Dowd
BY TRONE DOWD
A Southeast Queens grandmother was forced to walk home barefoot in the rain after a Jamaica Avenue clothing store security guard falsely accused her of stealing, tried to coerce her into signing a written confession and demanded that she take off her shoes before she was kicked out of the establishment.
The incident occurred at the Unique Thrift store, located at 162-10 Jamaica Ave., on May 28. Thelma Hook, 77, has long been a frequent patron of the store and was distressed by the way she was treated by one of her favorite retailers.
The PRESS of Southeast Queens received word of the incident earlier this week from community activist Kevin Livingston, who connected Hook to a local attorney, Kareem Vessup, three days after the incident. Vessup intends to pursue legal action against the store and is now publicizing the incident four months later to draw attention to Hook’s ordeal.
Vessup said that Hook was at the Unique clothing store for two hours. Hook, who is retired, was wearing a $5 pair of shoes that she had purchased from the store the year before. As she finished paying for her items, she was allegedly approached by a security guard whose name tag read Officer Bradley. The guard brought her to a security room, where he allegedly accused her of stealing the shoes on her feet.
“She was obviously very adamant that she didn’t steal anything,” Vassup said. “She told the officer that she had never stolen anything in her life and that she has worked very hard.”
The officer responded by allegedly telling her to “shut up” and calling her “nothing but an old thief.” A teary-eyed Hook insisted that the officer review the security tapes, but he refused. He instead confiscated her passport, wrote up a report claiming that he witnessed Hook stealing the shoes and tried to convince her to sign it as a confession to the crime. When she refused, he made note of it on the document, demanded that she remove her shoes and sent her out on the commercial strip barefoot without any form of identification.
It wasn’t until the next morning that the thrift store’s manager—known only as Jeff—called Hook to apologize. The manager, who had a cordial relationship with Hook prior to the incident as she was a frequent shopper at the store, insisted that she come to the store and he would buy her coffee. He returned her passport and explained that the officer was from another Unique store and a further review of the store’s tapes confirmed that Hook did not steal the shoes.
But upon further investigation, Vessup said it was discovered that the guard’s intimidating actions are allegedly an anti-theft method used at several of Unique’s locations.
“Several people have approached Ms. Hook and we have spoken to a number of individuals as well,” Vessup said.
“When people walk into the store, security will accuse them of stealing if they are wearing a similar item that’s being sold. Let’s say you frequent the store and you walk back into the store with an item you already bought, you’re susceptible to being detained, brought into a room and accused of stealing.”
Vessup said that people in Hempstead and Flatbush have come forward with stories similar to Hook’s, although it is unclear whether they signed the confession that was presented to them. Although the reasoning for the tactic is unclear, Vessup said that he believed there may be a monetary motivation behind it.
All 11 Unique stores in the New York and New Jersey area do not hire security in-house, but instead employ officers from a Brooklyn-based company known as A.F. Security Solutions. The PRESS of Southeast Queens went to the Unique thrift store where the incident took place to retreive the full names of the store manager and officer. The PRESS was told that it would be put in touch with A.F. Security and that Unique employees could not speak on the matter. A.F. Security did not provide a comment by press time.
Vessup said that his efforts to get in touch with Unique and A.F. Solutions attorneys were similarly fruitless. He said that he intends to bring the case up to the New York State Attorney General via a written statement at some point next week.
Hook, who is originally from Guyana, has been living in New York for 45 years. She worked as a nurse and performed domestic work prior to her retirement. In recent years, Hook has been at active in her community—especially during the shooting of Sean Bell in 2006. In a brief conversation with the PRESS of Southeast Queens, she said that she still feels humiliated by the situation.
“I was a frequent shopper for years” Hook said. “I’d go there four days a week. I’m retired now. Now, every time I go to Jamaica Avenue, I feel ashamed. I heard about things like this happening, but I never thought that it could happen to me.”
Livingston told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that he found Hook’s alleged treatment by the thrift shop to be disturbing.
“I think that we have to take a firm stance from the get-go,” Livingston said. “We have to let people know, especially since Jamaica is changing, that this kind of treatment of our community members will not be tolerated. We will follow this all the way through and we look forward to seeing how this all concludes.”