By Ed Brock
Felecia Mills was more than a little surprised to find herself in jail, charged with stealing candy bars.
At the time it happened, Aug. 13, a Friday, Mills, 39, of Jonesboro had been on her job as a third grade teacher at Kemp Elementary School for about a week.
"It was the end of the school day and I was pretty stressed out," Mills said.
She went shopping after school around 5 p.m. at the Wal-Mart in Morrow and at the beginning of the shopping trip she grabbed some candy bars, the kind meant to give the eater extra energy.
"I had eight or 10 in the cart," Mills said.
At one point she started feeling dizzy, so she ate three or four of the bars and kept shopping. Mills said she accidentally threw away the wrappers for the energy bars.
After more than half an hour of shopping, Mills waited in line for several more minutes and bought $121.95 in groceries. Then she walked out of the store but had not paid for the bars she ate in the store.
She had eaten food in stores before, but had always paid for it before this.
"I'd just forgotten about it," Mills said.
In the parking lot two Wal-Mart loss prevention employees approached her.
"They said 'Do you intend to pay for those candy bars?'" Mills said.
Mills told them she had forgotten about the candy bars and said she would go back and pay for them. But the Wal-Mart employees said the stores policy required them to prosecute shoplifting cases.
She was taken away in handcuffs. It was the first time she had been arrested in her life, Mills said.
"I was scared to death. I couldn't believe it was happening," Mills said.
At the jail Mills tried to call a bail bond company but was told she would have to pay $3,000 up front and she couldn't afford it. Mills had moved to Clayton County from Spanish Fort, Ala. and had nobody in the area she could turn to for help, so she spent the night in jail.
"I had no idea what to do or what was happening," Mills said.
On Wednesday Mills' case went to trial. Mills' attorney James Studdard said the jury considered the case for about "as much time as it takes to smoke a cigarette," about 20 minutes, before acquitting Mills.
Clayton County Solicitor General Leslie Miller Terry said she had not been aware of the case and the accusation against Mills had been filed before she took office in January. Otherwise, Terry said, Mills would have qualified for the first offender diversion program she just implemented.
"That was precisely the reason I ran," Terry said.
Under that program Mills may have been sent to a special program to educate her on shoplifting laws or some other alternate program would have been reached to avoid a criminal trial. She would not have dropped the case altogether, however, because Mills did leave the store without paying for the candybars.
Terry said she plans to talk to area stores, including Wal-Mart, about finding different ways to deal with shoplifting situations.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber said the company does have a zero tolerance policy toward shoplifting.
"We work diligently to ensure that we bring our every day low prices to our customers. Part of that is keeping cost in line," Weber said. "We have a zero tolerance to shoplifting to protect the interest of all of our customers."