Pair alleges illegal strip-search They seek $218 million from mall, store, police

March 22, 1996|By Elaine Tassy and Tanya Jones | Elaine Tassy and Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Two Prince George's County residents filed a $218 million lawsuit yesterday, alleging they were unlawfully strip-searched by security officers at a lingerie shop in the Towson Town Center mall after one was accused of stealing a pair of panties.

Nathaniel Edward Masterson of Palmer Park and Ruth Kay Cobb of Hyattsville alleged that they were "paraded through the mall" by seven or eight uniformed Baltimore County police officers to the Victoria's Secret store, where an employee accused Mr. Masterson of theft.

Officers Robert Knudsen and Louis E. Gianotti moonlighting as mall security officers conducted a strip-search of Mr. Masterson, 48, a steam-boiler operations engineer, while in another room an unnamed female security guard searched Ms. Cobb, including intimate body cavities, according to the complaint.

No stolen item was found, the plaintiffs said. They were not charged.

Ms. Cobb, 35, a campus police officer at Howard University in Washington, said she spent more than $22 in the store and was enraged by her treatment.

"I have never heard of anyone being strip-searched for a pair of panties," Ms. Cobb said yesterday at a news conference in the Washington office of lawyer Ted J. Williams, who filed the suit in ++ Baltimore County Circuit Court. "My absolute freedom as a human being was gone."

The suit seeks $100 million in damages from the mall, $100 million from Victoria's Secret and $6 million each from the police officers and unidentified female security officer for false arrest, emotional distress and negligence.

Officer Knudsen, 35, is a 14-year police veteran assigned to the Parkville Precinct. Officer Gianotti, 45, is assigned to police-dog operations and has been with the force for 23 years. Neither could be reached for comment.

Ms. Cobb and Mr. Masterson said yesterday they did not consent to the strip-searches but decided to cooperate.

"I found myself in a closet, a little office, with two white police officers standing at the door," said Mr. Masterson, who, like Ms. Cobb, is black. "The best thing I felt for me to do was to willfully submit."

Charges of civil rights violations and charges against Baltimore County for improperly training police officers might be added to the suit, Mr. Williams said.

"It is my belief that if they were not people of color they would not have been treated the way they were treated," the lawyer said.

While the police officers are white, the female security guard and seasonal worker who made the theft allegation are black.

Mr. Williams compared it to an incident in which an off-duty Prince George's police officer working as a security guard at an Eddie Bauer store ordered a black teen-ager to take off his shirt and leave it at the store.

The youth, who brought in a receipt for it the next day, and a friend who was with him filed an $85 million lawsuit charging the retailer with "consumer racism." The case is pending.

Victoria's Secret and Towson Town Center issued brief statements on the suit. "There appears to be a gross mischaracterization of the facts," mall General Manager Christopher S. Schardt said.

Victoria's Secret headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, stated, "It is a fundamental value of Victoria's Secret to treat all of its customers with dignity and respect."

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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