Ruling due tomorrow in lawyer's theft case

Offutt is charged with shoplifting pain reliever, assault


April 04, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County judge will decide tomorrow whether a well-known Annapolis lawyer is guilty of shoplifting a bottle of pain reliever from a discount shopping club and assaulting a store security guard.

M. Willson Offutt IV is accused of misdemeanor theft and assault in the incident at Sam's Club outside Annapolis on July 10. Store employees said in court last week that he was uncooperative and hostile. Offutt said he did not realize that he had not paid for the over-the-counter product.

District Judge Vincent A. Mulieri took testimony in January and again Friday. Lawyers will sum up tomorrow morning, after which Mulieri is expected to rule.

Though the charges are minor, the potential effects on Offutt's license to practice law are not. If convicted, he will be subject to punishment that ranges from a private reprimand to disbarment, said Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission. Offutt's law practice is in financing and related fields.

Workers at the store and Offutt, 50, agree that Offutt was pushing a cart out of the store with the beverages he bought clearly visible but with an $11.29 bottle of Aleve he had not paid for inside a red bag.

The two sides agree on nothing else.

Store employees testified Friday that a security officer, Adam Zaharna, blocked Offutt from leaving in what Offutt described as a chaotic scene. They said Zaharna, who said he saw Offutt remove a bottle of Aleve from its box and stuff it into his bag, approached Offutt, identified himself and told him he had goods he had not paid for. They said Offutt refused to return to the office but that Zaharna, with the store manager, brought him there.

"The defendant actually tried to hit him with the shopping cart," Steve Ansboro, who worked for a franchise group within the store and saw part of the exchange, testified.

Confronted inside the office, Offutt told store employees that he had bought over-the-counter medication there previously. His red bag contained, among other items, the new bottle of Aleve.

Police Officer James Nicely, called to the store, testified that Offutt appeared to be "a little in shock. He kept asking me, `What's going on, what's going on,'" Nicely said.

The officer said he told Zaharna to seek theft charges with a District Court commissioner and, if he had been assaulted, that charge, too.

Offutt sent a letter to the store two days later complaining that he had been mistreated. Zaharna filed charges two days after that, which Offutt's lawyer, William C. Mulford II, suggested was to blunt any idea Offutt might have had about suing the store.

On the witness stand last week, Offutt said he did not intend to steal the Aleve. With nearly $1,000 in his red bag, he could have paid for the item, he said.

He said that though he had taken painkillers that day, "I still felt awful, and my arm was throbbing." He opened a box of Aleve to read the flier and determine whether he could take it, he said. Deciding that he could, he threw out the box and kept the bottle, he said.

Waiting at the checkout line, he decided to open the bottle and take a pill. But his turn came quickly, and he dropped the bottle into the bag, paid and left, he said. Offutt said he did not know why he was being stopped at the door, that he wondered whether the man was trying to rob him or was pretending to be a police officer. He said he was confused, was trying to hold his ground and was lifted off his feet by employees taking him to the office.

"It was not until Officer Nicely explained to me that I had the Aleve from that day - and it was not on the receipt - that it dawned on me," Offutt said.

He thought he had paid for the medicine along with the beverages. As he rooted around in his bag for his money, Offutt testified, the bottle must have fallen into the bag.

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