GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo. (KDVR) — They thought they were doing the right thing. Instead, five employees at a King Soopers grocery store in Greenwood Village were terminated for holding a shoplifting suspect and calling the police.
It’s been more than six months since the employees were fired, and they still haven’t received an arbitration date to hear their appeals.
“I think it is a travesty of justice, quite frankly,” said Greg McArthur, one of the five King Soopers employees.
The other four employees let go for the Nov. 2 incident are Teresa Maldonado, Julie Olivett, Pressley Swenson and Naghi Salimi.
All five sat down separately with the Problem Solvers to talk about what each felt was a wrongful termination.
“Just trying to help,” said Naghi Salimi, who moved to Colorado from Iran in 2017. He said King Soopers was the one and only place he had worked since emigrating to the United States.
“I never thought I’d be fired for this,” said Pressley Swenson, who had only been on the job three months.
“It’s hit my family hard financially, emotionally,” said Julie Olivett, who at age 62 said she was blindsided by the termination. “I’ve lost my health insurance. I lost all my benefits for something that’s just unfair because I did nothing wrong. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I felt like my life was in danger,” said Teresa Maldonado, who had worked at King Soopers for 31 years when she was fired.
Thief uses box cutter to steal $20 cell phone
It was Maldonado who first spotted a man stealing a cell phone by using a box cutter to cut off the security tag.
Store surveillance video obtained by the Problem Solvers shows Maldonado following 54-year-old Darren Heurtevant as he walked toward the exit.
There’s no audio on the video, but Maldonado said she told the suspect to stop and instead, he started to run through an unmanned checkout line. As he did so, Heurtevant can be seen slipping, dropping both the $20 cell phone and a blue Kobalt box cutter he used to steal the phone. He immediately bends down to pick up the two items and continues running.
That’s when Maldonado said she yelled, “He’s got a knife, he’s got a knife.”
Maldonado’s screaming seems to get the attention of four co-workers seen on store surveillance video standing near the self-checkout area, the exact area Heurtevant was running toward to leave the store.
“I see him turn. There’s a knife in his hand. I see the knife. So I have an angle to wrap him, so I wrap him up, take him down, grabbed his left hand and remove the knife,” said McArthur, who was immediately assisted by co-worker Salimi. Two customers would later assist the men in holding Heurtevant on the floor until Greenwood Police arrived at the store location at 6000 S. Holly Street.
Police body camera video obtained by the Problem Solvers shows officers handcuffing Huertevant, who immediately can be heard confessing, “I had a razor that I used to cut the security tag.”
Huertevant denied waving the box cutter at anyone but did acknowledge he was on parole at the time and can be heard asking officers if they can just write him a ticket.
Officers told Huertevant no, and that he was being arrested for felony menacing and two misdemeanors, violation of a protection order and drug possession. Officers found a baggie with white powder in Huertevant’s pocket that later tested positive for methamphetamine.
‘I acted to protect myself’
Maldonado said the response from police was nothing but supportive. But the response from her manager was just the opposite.
“I got an ‘Attaboy, out the door,’ is what I got. Terrible,” said Maldonado, who along with four co-workers was fired 10 days later for violating King Soopers’ hands-off policy when it comes to shoplifters.
In a statement to the Problem Solvers, King Soopers said:
We value our hardworking associates and nothing can be more important than their safety and that of our customer’s. We appreciate that in this instance their actions may have been well intended however, they violated the very policies that are in place for everyone’s safety. Nothing in our stores is worth sacrificing that core value and their safe return home.King Soopers
The five former employees shared a labor agreement the union signed with King Soopers in January 2022. They referenced Article 51, Section 139, which reads, “During a dangerous emergency the Employer agrees that employees do not bear any responsibility to protect merchandise. Employees should protect themselves and, to the extent safely and reasonably possible, co-workers/customers.”
“I acted to protect myself. I acted to protect my fellow coworkers and I wanted to ensure the situation didn’t escalate,” said Greg McArthur, the employee seen on video tackling Huertevant to the ground, removing the box cutter from his hand and kicking it a safe distance away.
The store video showed none of the female co-workers held the shoplifting suspect down, but Pressley Swenson said she was fired for calling 911, “Because they don’t want a scene. They want to just be able to handle it in-store.”
Julie Olivett added, “As a matter of fact, King Soopers said if the police weren’t called and we would have let him go, then none of us would have been fired.”
On Friday, the day after this story was first aired and published, King Soopers contacted FOX31 with a new statement disputing the workers’ claims. “To be clear, these associates were not terminated for calling the police, but rather for violating our policy, which does not restrict associates from calling the police,” a company spokesperson said.
Olivett and her fired co-workers said King Soopers is sending an unmistakable message to shoplifters: “Anybody can go into any store now and take anything they want without any accountability.”
“King Soopers is, you know, basically saying they (shoplifters) can’t be touched. They can’t be touched. So they’re going to do whatever the hell they want to do,” Maldonado said.
“Well, that’s the testament to the reality that we’re living in and the confusion of this upside-down interpretation of what is right,” McArthur said.
McArthur admitted he and Naghi put their hands on the suspect, but neither man could comprehend why their female co-workers were terminated.
“It is pretty ridiculous because they don’t even do anything. And they were just trying to call 911,” said Naghi, who added he’s “more sad about how they (his female co-workers) got fired.”
When asked if police officers said she or her co-workers did anything wrong, Pressley responded, “No, they high-fived us. They called us heroes.”
Union arbitration still not set, 6 months later
When told Huerevant was sentenced to 10 days in jail after he was allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor petty theft and his drug offense was dismissed as part of a plea deal, while Pressley and her four co-workers were fired, she said, “It makes me sick … We are the victims. He’s not the victim. We’re the victims.”
All five former employees said they are also frustrated with their union — United Food and Commercial Workers International, Local 7 — because they still don’t have an arbitration hearing set more than six months after they were fired.
In a statement to FOX31, a union spokesperson said:
“Local 7 is familiar with the incident at the King Soopers store in Greenwood Village at 6000 Holly Street. Local 7 took swift action, including filing grievances under the collective bargaining agreement with King Soopers on behalf of all the affected associates. These grievances are currently proceeding through the normal grievance procedure, as are numerous other grievances between Local 7 and King Soopers. As its final step, the grievance procedure ultimately involves a hearing before an impartial, third-party arbitrator. The grievances have not yet reached this step of the procedure, but the Union intends to continue its zealous advocacy for these members.”UFCW Local 7
A Local 7 union spokesperson told the Problem Solvers an arbitration hearing hasn’t been set yet because of a backlog of cases facing the arbitrator who handles disputes between King Soopers and the union.