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Safeway apologizes to family for treatment in theft case

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Safeway is declining to press charges against a Honolulu couple whose arrests over stolen sandwiches led state workers to take their 2-year-old daughter and sparked nationwide outrage.

Safeway told Honolulu police Tuesday that it won’t press charges against Marcin and Nicole Leszczynski, company spokeswoman Susan Houghton said. The couple were arrested last week when Nicole, who is 30 weeks pregnant, ate a sandwich while shopping and walked out without paying.

Their daughter Zofia was taken away by state Child Welfare Services officials. She was returned to her parents 18 hours later.

Karl Schroeder, a Safeway division president, called Nicole Leszczynski on Tuesday, and "he apologized for what she’s been through," Houghton said.

Houghton said management followed routine shoplifting procedure by contacting police, but Safeway regrets not foreseeing that doing so would cause a child to be separated from her parents.

"We want to do the right thing here," Houghton said. "Families are important to us."

The incident at the store near downtown Honolulu is prompting Safeway to examine how managers and employees are trained. "In this case it was not handled in the appropriate manner, and we wanted to correct that," Houghton said.

Nicole, 28, and Marcin, 33, forgot to pay for two sandwiches that together cost $5. They were handcuffed and searched, and later released on $50 bail each.

The family had moved to an apartment near downtown Honolulu from Monterey, Calif., two weeks ago. Still settling in, they ventured out Wednesday to stock up on groceries, took the bus, got lost and ended up at a Safeway supermarket, Nicole said.

Famished, the former Air Force staff sergeant openly munched on a sandwich while she shopped, saving the wrapper to be scanned at the register later. But she said they forgot to pay for the sandwiches as they checked out with about $50 worth of groceries.

"When the security guard questioned us, I was really embarrassed, I was horrified," Nicole said Monday. They were led upstairs, where the couple expected to get a lecture, pay for the sandwiches and be allowed on their way.

But store managers wouldn’t allow them to simply pay, she said.

Four hours later a police officer arrived and read them their rights. A woman from the Child Welfare Services arrived to take Zofia away.

Leszczynski called the incident "so horrifying. It seemed to escalate, and no one could say, ‘This is too much.’"

The pregnant mother said she tried to keep her composure until Zofia, who turns 3 in December, left the store.

"I didn’t want Zofia to be scared because she’s never spent a night away from us. She didn’t have her stuffed animal. She didn’t have her toothbrush."

But as soon as her daughter left, "I got completely hysterical. I went to the bathroom and I threw up," she recalled.

A Honolulu police spokeswoman said it is routine procedure to call Child Welfare Services if a child is present when both parents are arrested.

The couple were handcuffed and driven separately to police headquarters a few blocks away, where they were searched, had their mug shots taken and then released after paying bail.

Nicole said she and her husband were told they were banned from the store for one year.

Houghton said she wasn’t sure who would have told them that, but Safeway welcomes the family back.

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