Wal-Mart Case to Be Heard

Zack Rosen

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ST. LOUIS – Nearly three years ago, Heather Ellis made a decision that – regardless of its intentions – may cost her jail time. After Ellis switched checkout lines at a southeast Missouri store and touched off what she calls a racially charged dispute with white customers and authorities, the young black schoolteacher faces a trial and 15 years in prison.

According to witnesses, authorities have stated that Ellis cut in front of customers waiting in line at the Wal-Mart in Kennett, St. Louis on Jan. 6, 2007. According to court filings, after shoving merchandise already placed on a conveyor belt out of the way she became belligerent when confronted.

Ellis maintains, however, that she was simply joining her cousin, whose checkout line was moving more quickly. She claimed in a written complaint to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that she was then pushed by a white customer, hassled by store employees, called racial slurs and physically mistreated by police.

According to court documents, Ellis refused requests to calm down and leave the property, allegedly kicking one’s shin and splitting another’s lip while resisting arrest.

Ellis, who is being charged with assaulting police officers, resisting arrest, and disturbing the peace, is set to begin trial on Wednesday in Dunklin County Circuit Court.

A Louisiana teacher who is engaged to a state trooper, Ellis says she feels trapped by “small-town politics” in Kennett, where her family lives. “What a shame the system can destroy a young person’s future like this because of bad cops,” Ellis wrote to the NAACP in April.

The NAACP subsequently held a rally in Kennett. Before the event began, however, police officers found threatening letters the size of business cards scattered along the route that said the Ku Klux Klan had paid a visit and “the next visit will not be social.”

Dunklin County Prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff said the cards were removed and the source investigated but never discovered. He said he doubts the cards actually were from the KKK; he knows of no KKK presence in the area. A call to the KKK headquarters was not answered.

As for Ellis’ allegations of mistreatment by law enforcement, Sokoloff said he’s “seen absolutely no evidence of any kind, apart from her statements, that those things occurred.” Kennett Police Chief Barry Tate did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Longtime resident Charles B. Brown, and former mayor, said “we’re a small country town with greater problems than racism. Our problems are economic.”

“Incidents involving our customers are unfortunate and we take them seriously,” Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said in a statement earlier this month. “In this matter, there was a disturbance and law enforcement was contacted, in accordance with our normal procedures. The police then determined how to proceed.”

Editor’s note: Associated Press writer Betsy Taylor contribued to this report. If you would like to share your opinion on this matter, please email The Charger Bulletin at or via text message at 1-270-UNH-NEWS.

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Wal-Mart Case to Be Heard