WESTMINSTER, Colo. (KDVR) — When an armed robber grabbed a pack of cigarettes, Mary Ann Moreno never thought it would lead to her termination as a clerk for a Circle K convenience store in Westminster.

Now the 75-year-old is suing Circle K Stores, Inc., claiming she was the victim of wrongful termination for her brief interaction with the criminal.

“I really do not think I would get fired for something like that. If I had chased him out the door or, you know, argued with him,” said Moreno, who had worked at the 9489 Sheridan Blvd. location for 18 years.

Robber goes behind Circle K clerk’s counter

It was Oct. 4, 2020, when Tyler Wimmer walked into the Circle K with a knife in one hand and, in the other hand, a sealed package that contained a knife.

Surveillance video obtained by the Problem Solvers doesn’t indicate that Wimmer threatened Moreno with a knife, but he did ask her to give him a pack of cigarettes for free.

Moreno told the Problem Solvers she explained to Wimmer she couldn’t do that or she would be fired.

Wimmer appears to walk away as if he’s going to leave the store but then turns around and walks behind Moreno, where the cigarettes are displayed, and grabs a pack.

As he steals the cigarettes, Moreno can be seen briefly grabbing his arm and then backing away.

“When he came around that fast, he was like right there. And I, like, freaked out, you know? And I just went like that (she motions pushing the suspect to create distance). Well, supposedly, I guess I grabbed his arm. I don’t remember that, but I push him, and that’s when he ran out,” Moreno said.

In the store video, Wimmer can be seen walking outside, and Moreno immediately calls a store manager and then 911.

Surveillance video showing a man walking behind the clerk counter in a Circle K
Circle K store video of Tyler Wimmer stealing cigarettes (Courtesy: Circle K Stores, Inc.)

Customer had already called 911 on the man

By then, a customer named Larry Wagner had already called 911 after seeing Wimmer enter the store with a knife in his hand.

“He was scary. And like I said, I wish I would have stayed in the store for Mary’s sake, but I didn’t. But I was like, I need to go call 911,” said Wagner, who told FOX31 he suspected the 37-year-old suspect might be under the influence of drugs based on his demeanor.

Circle K never provided Moreno with a termination letter, but the then 72-year-old said she was fired a few days later for briefly touching the suspect, which she was told violated Circle K’s “Don’t Chase or Confront Policy” when it comes to shoplifters and robbers.

Circle K told the Problem Solvers it won’t comment on pending litigation, but its employee handbook says its shoplifter/robber policy “is for your protection and for the safety of everyone.”

“I don’t feel that I violated the policy,” said Moreno, who added, “When they’re coming around, it’s natural that you’re going to have to you know, either defend yourself or you’re going to react.”

Attorney: Circle K does not appreciate dangers in retail work

“I think they’re (Circle K) just not distinguishing between self-defense and chasing,” said attorney Iris Halpern, who filed the wrongful termination lawsuit on Moreno’s behalf.

“I think anyone who looks at the video footage from that evening is going to see that this is just someone responding kind of in, you know, instinctually in self-defense,” said Halpern, who added, “Employers should be more appreciative of the danger that their employees face on a day-to-day basis in these retail jobs.”

Halpern said a deposition with Circle K’s former human resource manager for a six-state region that includes Colorado confirmed the company suffers a 200% turnover rate.

Terminating an 18-year employee for a human reaction, Halpern said, when Moreno made no real effort to stop Wimmer or chase him, is simply wrong.

“Companies have not sufficiently thought through the nuance in these situations, and any normal person is going to respond by pushing an attacker away from them,” Halpern said.

Clerk: ‘I did it all’ for 18 years

“I was really upset that they fired me, because after 18 years of service with this company, they did that to me?” said Moreno, who remembered, “When they needed help, if somebody called in (sick), I was the first person they called. I did things that they didn’t even ask me to do. I washed windows, I shoveled snow, I cleaned their pumps. Mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms, took merchandise off the shelving, dusted, cleaned cans, checked for expiration. I did it all.”

“It’s wrong, it’s just wrong,” to fire her, said customer Larry Wagner. The Westminster resident was stunned to learn the clerk he called 911 to help was fired for having what he said was a natural reaction to a stressful situation.

“That’s just human nature. You’re just protecting yourself. And to say that you can’t put your hands on somebody in that situation is just, I think they need to reevaluate their policy. If you care about your employees,” Wagner said.

Moreno has since found a new job but said she’s suing, because “I want to prove that it was wrong for them to fire me for what happened.”

The robber, Tyler Wimmer, was captured after a short foot chase with police.

He pleaded guilty to the robbery and a pair of unrelated cases all at once and received three years in Community Corrections. He’s due to be released in a year.