Minyard Math

How hard is it to dial 9, then 1, then 1?

E-mail. It's so great, politically.

Probably my favorite of all movie scenes as a kid was when the villagers and peasants marched on Dr. Frankenstein's castle at night with those torches. I think that scene may still be my own notion of political activity at its very best. Especially the torches.

So that's what it was like a week ago when my co-worker, Shannon Sutlief, got robbed outside the Lakewood Minyard at Abrams and Gaston. Within a day we peasants and villagers were massed waving our torches angrily, but instead of rope soaked in pitch and wrapped on ends of tree branches, we had e-mail.

At the Lakewood Minyard on Abrams at Gaston, none of the employees could figure out how to call 911 for a customer in need.
Mark Graham
At the Lakewood Minyard on Abrams at Gaston, none of the employees could figure out how to call 911 for a customer in need.

And here's the thing: This is a co-worker I'm writing about. Sutlief is editor of the Night & Day section of this newspaper. I would expect you to take what I say with a grain of salt, since I work with the person involved. Fine with me. Take the whole shaker.

And by the way, everything my co-worker says, Minyard sort of denies. I will get to that. Minyard has its own official story about how dialing 911 to help my co-worker was too complex a task for its entire staff working together on the problem at the Lakewood store that night, and I want to be very fair and objective about reporting that. I mean, what were the authorities thinking when they set up a system in which people have to dial three numbers in a row in order to fetch the gendarmes? But we'll get to that. Here's what happened, according to Sutlief, a 28-year-old Observer-American female:

It was just after 7 on a Wednesday evening and dark outside. She was getting ready to move to a new apartment and had a sudden need for plastic bags and packing tape. The closest big store was Minyard.

She pulls onto the lot in her black Mitsubishi Eclipse and picks a parking spot right in front of the main door beneath a light pole. Goes in. Gets her stuff. Swipes her credit card to pay at 7:20 p.m. Walks outside with three plastic bags of stuff on her left arm and car keys in her right hand.

"I'm almost up to my car, and this SUV pulls between me and my car. They were going really fast." She didn't know the make. "Silver, shiny, small, kind of boxy. It looked like it had just been driven off the showroom floor."

So she figures it's a bad driver. There were three young men in the car.

"I think nothing of it," she told me. "But then as I am opening the door, getting in the car, this guy behind me says, 'I have a gun, give me your purse.' I get out of my car, turn to face him, look down and see the gun. He steps closer with the gun and says, 'Give me your purse.'"

Sutlief was giving me the polite version. The police report states: "Suspect then placed gun in complainant's stomach and said, 'Give me the fucking purse.'"

"He was very young," she told me. "A baby-faced guy."

The kid with the gun yanked her purse from around her neck because she wasn't moving fast enough, knocking her off balance. Then he demanded her car keys. Sutlief had just finished putting $2,600 into the Eclipse for a new transmission.

"I said, 'Please don't take my car. Please let me keep my keys. I just got it back, and I won't have a way to work.'"

Exactly what everybody tells you not to do. But guess what? The kid got confused. There was some scrambling around about the keys. He jumped back in the SUV and took off without them.

Now we get to the bad part.

"I dropped my groceries on my car hood and ran into the store. The first person I see that works there is the lady who had just been my cashier. I stop her and say, 'I have just been robbed in the parking lot at gunpoint, and I need to call 911.'

"She just looks at me. I repeat myself. She says, 'You're going to have to talk to Violet.' She points at this lady called Violet. She's with a cashier at one of the cashier stands. I run over to her and say, 'I was just robbed at gunpoint, and I need to call 911.'

"She points to the customer service desk and says, 'It's over there.' I run over there, and she's behind me. But she's not running with me. She's walking toward me. She opens the gate into the service desk, picks up the phone and hands the receiver to me. She says, 'Who do you want to call?'

"I say, 'I want to call 911.' She says, 'I can't do that.' I say, 'I need to call the police. I need the police here.' She dials 911. On the screen of the phone, it says 'Restricted Access.' I say, 'Who can do this?' She says, 'We'll have to page a manager.'"

What follows is an agonizing pageant in which Sutlief winds up going from employee to employee begging for someone to figure it out. Everybody just shrugs. The manager never shows up. Finally when Sutlief raises her voice to demand help, an employee tells her that she is "making a scene" and must leave the store.

Oh, we can't have a scene, can we? We can have an armed robbery, but no scenes.

She leaves the store, rather than cause a scene, and is able to flag down cops nearby. The Dallas police, she told me, were really great--took her back to the store to do the report, seriously worked it, tried to get units out looking for the SUV. She said the officer who took the report told her the robbers sounded like amateurs and might have been caught if she had been able to call 911 immediately from the store. As it was, the robbers were gone 15 to 20 minutes by the time the offense made it to police dispatch.

The neighborhood has been angry about this store for a year or more because of a general decline in service. Dallas City Councilman Gary Griffith told me months ago he was putting pressure on Minyard to do something about it.

You probably remember that the 69 Minyard grocery stores in North Texas were sold by Dallas' Minyard family in October 2004 to a company with the catchy name of Acquisition Vehicle Texas II. Let's call them Acky-V.

One of the complaints of neighbors and shoppers was that at some point after taking over, Acky-V had cut out the off-duty police patrols in front of the store at night. An Acky-V spokesman told me the patrols were cut because there was no crime reported at the store.

Impressive. And it's supported by what I learned from the Dallas Police Department. There have been no 911 calls from the store in the last 12 months. Not one. Amazing. The anchor commercial establishment at a major urban intersection, and not a single 911 call in a year.

So why do you need off-duty cops? No 911 calls, no cops. It all works out. Acky-V saves a few bucks on the deal. Who can argue? I'm just trying to figure out how they didn't have a single 911 call from there in a year. Hmm. Nope. Can't figure it out.

I was assured by Executive Vice President Pat Liska that their policy is for all employees to make 911 calls for customers whenever asked. "When somebody comes into the store and they need us to dial 911, we just do it," Liska said. He blamed the events in Sutlief's case on a youthful employee who handled things the wrong way. "That was an individual decision," he said. Liska said the employee has been given instruction in how to better handle 911 calls in the future.

It's just that nobody ever wanted any employee to call 911 from this store before that night. And all of the shoulder-shrugging and dialing malfunctions Sutlief experienced were coincidences.

What can you say?

I know what the e-mail said. First, the one I got from my wife said, "Minyard Robbery, did you receive?" I clicked on it. That led me to a message from Janel, who was my wife's roommate at SMU. She said, "For all you guys who live in Lakewood." So I clicked on that and went to a message that said, "Interesting. Be careful." I think that was from Sheral, my dentist's wife.

I clicked on that and went to a message that said, "Take Note," from Robin, a food and nutrition consultant. In that message I read a description of what happened, which made me furious. About an hour later I figured out the victim had been my co-worker.

In a space of one morning, I honestly believe this e-mail was read by tens of thousands of people in East Dallas. It went everywhere! From one list to another.

So fine. We're all wrong. Minyard always dials 911 whenever anyone asks, quickly quickly quickly, so that the police can catch the bad guys. Sutlief just ran into an accidental unintentional coincidental incremental series of dialing errors.

Ah, but the moon soars above the forests of the Internet tonight, and the bat flies. I believe if one were to peer from the front door of the Minyard store, one would see distant lights massing on the cobbled roads of electronic Transylvania. Are those shouts and murmurs?

If I were Acky-V, I'd have me a case of the shakes.

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