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October 30th, 2009
06:23 PM ET

Walmart scuffle could send preacher’s daughter to prison for 15 years

Editor’s Note: Watch Randi Kaye’s full report tonight on Anderson Cooper 360 at 10pm ET.

Randi Kaye| BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Is it a classic case of “he said, she said,” or is it a brutal case of racism? Whatever it is, it may land a Missouri woman, a preacher’s daughter who has never been in trouble with the law before, in jail.

It all apparently started at a Walmart store in Kennett, Missouri where according to police, customer Heather Ellis had cut in line to pay for her items. What followed is at the heart of a court case that may send Heather Ellis to jail for as many as 15 years!

Let me first say Ms. Ellis has pleaded not guilty. But here’s how police tell it: officers say they were called to the store after Ellis caused a “disturbance” at the cash register by “yelling and cursing.” Officers say when they tried to get her to leave the store, she turned and yelled at them, “I ain’t going nowhere until I get my (expletive) change back” but that even after she got her change, she continued to be “belligerent.” The lead officer says they tried to get her to remain calm and leave in a peaceful manner and told her they’d arrest her if she refused. That is when the lead officer says Ellis “issued a threat to assault” and said if the officer put their hands on her “she was going to beat my (expletive).” Well, it turned ugly according to police, who say she became “combative and began fighting.” The officers say Ellis “continued to fight, yell and curse” and was “completely out of control.” They say she “resisted arrest” and “stiffened her body” when they tried to put her in the police car. Read the full police report here.

Ellis is now charged with resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer and disturbing the peace.

But before you make up your mind what happened her... keep in mind that Heather Ellis is African-American and the officers involved are all white. Ms. Ellis isn’t talking, but those working on her behalf say she believes the charges are racially motivated. I spoke with John Chasnoff from the ACLU who has met with the Ellis family and he describes Ms. Ellis as “a very well put together young woman, very articulate, and very clear in her story about what happened.” He says, “She’s as sweet as can be and comes from a very religious background.” When I asked if she cursed at the police officers, the ACLU said, “that’s not language that I would expect Heather to use. According to her she was lifted off the ground by police and wasn’t’ in control of her body. She said they were forcing her to flail around but it was completely involuntary on her part.” Mr. Chasnoff of the ACLU says Heather Ellis told him she was “trying to defuse the situation and it escalated.” Why does Heather Ellis think race is the motive here? The ACLU’s Chasnoff told me that Ellis told him, “as she came out of store they followed her with a series of racial remarks, that included the N word and everything you can imagine.” Unfortunately, neither the police or the prosecutor will say anything more than what is in the police report. I should mention, there is store surveillance video but those tapes are not being released. The ACLU representative we spoke with said he viewed the tape and called it “inconclusive”. He said the tape only shows one angle and the family said there were more cameras in the parking lot that may show more. Where are those tapes? That’s what we want to know.

While Heather Ellis awaits her trial, which is supposed to start next month, she is working as a school teacher in Louisana. She also happens to be engaged to be married to a state trooper.

What side of this “he said, she said” debate are you buying? Would love to know...


Filed under: 360° Radar • Crime & Punishment • Randi Kaye
soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. mary

    Why is the ACUL always brought in? Isn't her lawyer good enough?

    Besides that, I can totally understand getting upset waiting in line at walmart, I do not mean by cutting, but their lack of customer service and allowing long lines to keep growing . They have very few registers open and do not care how long the customers have to wait.

    November 1, 2009 at 11:44 pm |
  2. karvictho

    That's right, walmart has cameras everywhere. Let's see if they produce the video at trial. Meanwhile, how could a person with no prior arrests face 15 years in jail even if she gets convicted of an assault that did not injure anyone. Something stinks in that little town in Missouri. It would also be interesting to see if any of the white folks accused and convicted of assault from the same county got 15 years.

    November 1, 2009 at 5:12 pm |
  3. kim colar

    Its hard to believe that cops can be racist unless u have experienced it first hand, well let me tell u its a scary thing to encounter.

    November 1, 2009 at 3:59 am |
  4. Kelly

    Just because the "police" say it happened does not make it so and wait for the video tapes to come out. The police need to be policed!

    October 31, 2009 at 8:54 pm |
  5. Latasha

    To be honest im tired of hearing all this black and white stuff what does it mean, everybody need to grow up, and look at all this crime and hate thats arounds us, and stop making everything about race, i mean if she was being rude she should get some kind of punishment but not nothing like no 15years, they acting like she killed somebody, even people that commit murdet half time dont get that long of jail time.

    October 31, 2009 at 4:55 pm |
  6. Ima

    Regardless of race, I think the real question is whether the punishment fits the crime?

    October 31, 2009 at 1:10 pm |
  7. Kristin

    In the U.S. everyone is assumed innocent until proven guilty.

    October 31, 2009 at 1:09 pm |
  8. Carol-Anne

    I have a question? Has anyone interviewed the store's workers and/or customers?
    The store's camera are evidence but until called to testify, the other people on the scene can be interviewed.
    We haven't even heard one side of this story so believing seems to be out of the question.
    And until every person on this country is equal and not just constitutionally, but financially and in the eyes of the law "the race card" will be played by people who want, and those who want to withold justice and information of any kind.

    October 31, 2009 at 9:48 am |
  9. Summer

    She had to have done something serious to have the police called in the first place. So if she behaved that disruptively, then I wouldn think that she would continue to be defiant. If someone would pick a fight instead of going to the back of the line, then I think that person would make an issue of being thrown out of the store.

    October 31, 2009 at 9:30 am |
  10. max

    But if they did mistreat her and they can show it I hope they throw the book at them. I have daughters her age.

    October 31, 2009 at 3:49 am |
  11. Mark

    What we have to remember here above all else is that we are even discussing the possibility of putting this young lady in jail for 15 years over an incident far less aggressive and severe than many things happening in the country today. Now we are devoting tax money and time to a case that has been taken far beyond a skirmish at Wal-Mart.

    October 31, 2009 at 2:27 am |
  12. Hilda E Cruz

    I can't say if the police did right or wrong. I have seen abuse by them and also a greater number of things well done. I do not doubt, however, that this lady behaved the way the police claim. Duaghter of preacher or not the situation got out of hand and she forgot her manners.

    October 31, 2009 at 1:43 am |
  13. Dee

    In america everyone get a chance in court. The problem is there are so many racial motivated incidents in our country and every case is not racially motivated , a person that is in that situation or like myself that has been in that situation think that it is to serious for us to claim race in every situation. I think it should be investigated and I'm not saying the the police are wrong.

    October 31, 2009 at 12:40 am |
  14. Mary

    Another unfortunate & classic case of law enforcement's abuse of authority. I am with Lisa Bloom 100% on this issue.

    October 31, 2009 at 12:36 am |
  15. Eli Cronus

    15 years? I've heard stories of rapists who got less time. You've got to be kidding me.

    October 30, 2009 at 11:49 pm |
  16. energystar

    There must have been witnesses. What have they said?

    October 30, 2009 at 11:39 pm |
  17. Jon

    The police are not always 100% right, remember this is a town with racial tensions. Let's hear alittle bit more about the witnesses. Were they racially diverse? What parts did they see?

    October 30, 2009 at 11:27 pm |
  18. Isis

    I would just like to know why in the world would someone be asking for your ID when you are paying with cash? That makes no sense at all and then the cashier refuses to give the woman her change back because she didn't show her ID? That makes no sense at all either. I'd get mad too if I wasn't given my change back when they have no business at all asking for my ID when I paid for something in cash.

    October 30, 2009 at 11:02 pm |
  19. Mark

    I can't beleive that for getting angry and resisting arrest the threat of 15 years in prison is possible ??? What is the matter here – that is absolutely ludicrous. Gotta change the sentencing laws as things seem backwards – 15 years .... Unbeleivable

    October 30, 2009 at 10:58 pm |
  20. Juanito

    Question: Were there any witnesses? What about the people she cut in front of, or the cashier? Are they telling what they saw?

    October 30, 2009 at 10:45 pm |
  21. Jo

    When will people take responsibility for their actions. You aren't entitled to anything regardless of your skin color. The more you act like you are the more you lash out and land yourself in jail. I wouldn't be surprised if the mystery tapes prove her wrong.

    October 30, 2009 at 10:35 pm |
  22. KK

    Potential of 15 years though? Seems a bit extreme. I understand that is what is written into the sentencing laws but at what point does reasonableness enter the equation. If she did what the police state in the report then she does need to answer to that but we are all human and fallible and the punishment should fit the offense.

    October 30, 2009 at 10:15 pm |
  23. Kelly

    Ya, we all have a temper..I think we need to hear from witnesses first..there's probably video tape. Sounds like a race card incident to me, but we will see!

    October 30, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  24. Tatia G.

    All it is going to take is the surveillance video and witness accounts to see which story holds more truth. Likely, both have added embellishments.

    October 30, 2009 at 9:24 pm |
  25. Allison

    I think that releasing the surveillance video would provide a lot of insight. The fact that law enforcement and the local District Attorney's office are not allowing this release weakens their credibility.

    October 30, 2009 at 8:39 pm |
  26. Vivien D Wolsk, PhD. NYC

    If the story is accurate and she did behave in the manner described, she is an emotionally trouble woman and police need to be better trained in handling emotionally unstable people. She did no one harm and the situation should have been calmly diffused without threatened arrest.

    October 30, 2009 at 8:38 pm |
  27. Lilibeth

    Questions:

    Have any witnesses come forward and given their account of what happened?

    Why aren’t tapes from surveillance cameras being released? Isn’t this what a surveillance camera is for, to bring forth evidence if needed? Who’s hiding what?

    If it turns out that the police officers' accusations against Ms. Ellis aren't true, what happens to them?

    Lilibeth, WA

    October 30, 2009 at 8:38 pm |
  28. Gail Thomas

    Oh, for pete's sake. Everyone thinks I'm all that too – sweet, kind, giving, religious etc., but even I have a temper. You know what, I think the police are right on this one. Wasn't there a camera somewhere recording this? Do the cops need to videotape every encounter they have with suspects? Geesh.

    October 30, 2009 at 8:06 pm |
  29. Lou

    I think people use the "race card" as an excuse to be belligerent and disturb the peace. She was arrested because her behavior was out of hand and became combatant not because she is African American, which is the only reason this issue is in the media. if a white woman got out had, she'd been arrested as well.

    Any time an African American gets arrested by white police officers, it's always "racially motivated." People need to be accountable for their actions.

    October 30, 2009 at 7:57 pm |
  30. Dale

    Without seeing any of the evidence, it's hard to say. I don't automatically assume the veracity of the police, but I also find hard to believe that a situation such as this would arrise if the woman is a "pure as the driven snow" as her supporters argue. Something is definitively amiss!

    October 30, 2009 at 7:54 pm |
  31. Kirstyn

    As far as I know, wal-mart has cameras all over and while it may not have sound, it can show actions. Preacher's daughter or not, black or white, you can't act disrespectful towards police. If she did what they clain she did, she deserves to get some sort of punishment.

    October 30, 2009 at 7:50 pm |