An independent contractor with the Statesboro Herald is seeking to secure a warrant against Statesboro City Council member Gary Lewis, claiming Lewis stole eight newspapers Thursday morning from a dispenser box at Harvey's grocery store on U.S. Highway 80 West.
A probable cause hearing for the case is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, at Bulloch County Magistrate Court. Lewis denies taking more than one newspaper. Lewis has held the District 2 seat on the council since 1998.
After independent newspaper carrier Tony McMillan noticed a significant number of newspapers being stolen from that particular box since last April, he and Statesboro Herald District Service manager C. E. Stricklin began surveillance of the box.
"Since April of 2010 our carrier, who serviced the vending machine at Harvey's on Northside Drive West, had been reporting 10 to 20 papers stolen, at 50 cents a piece each weekday," said Darrell Elliott, the Herald's circulation director. "This represented up to 50 percent of the papers he was placing in his machine for sale each day.
"Since April ... one of my employees and I have been setting up a sting operation to catch the perpetrator of the theft. over time we were able to determine that the thefts usually occurred between 8:30 am and 9:30 am Tuesday through Saturday and never on Sunday."
Using this information, Stricklin began "staking out" the vending machine.
Thursday morning, as he watched the box, Stricklin saw a man he described to police as a "black man in tan clothing" place money in the newspaper box, then "remove a handful of papers.
Stricklin dialed 911 and talked with an operator as he followed a red Pontiac Solstice, tag number BCD8229, as it made a zig-zag path through town. Driving on Williams Road, to Kent Street, onto Donnie Simmons Way, the red convertible continued, with Stricklin following, onto Howard Foss Drive, crossed West Main Street, then on Denmark Street. The car continued onto Johnson Street, then onto West Jones Avenue to a "sharp curve." Stricklin said in a statement to police that he lost sight of the red car at that point due to traffic.
Stricklin then went to the Statesboro Police Department to file a report. An officer taking the report, after asking permission from a superior officer, told Stricklin the tag for the red Solstice convertible belonged to (Statesboro City) "Councilman Gary Lewis," Stricklin said.
"I have never met Mr. Lewis and did not recognize him (as he was seen at the newspaper box)," he said.
Stricklin left the police department and returned to the newspaper rack, counting both the newspapers and the money. Based upon a beginning count of 20 newspapers and the number lef in the box ,paired with the amount of money in the box, he determined eight papers were missing for which no one had paid. He also determined, by the amount of money in the box, that no one had purchased a paper or opened the box since he witnessed the man he later discovered was Lewis taking the papers, he said.
In the meantime, Statesboro Police Officer Eric Short responded to Lewis' place of employment and questioned Lewis, who denied having taken more than one newspaper.
In a written statement Lewis made to Statesboro Police, he said he bought one paper, took only one paper, and then left to pick up a client in Sugar Hill (off West Jones Avenue) and returned to his barber shop on MLK Boulevard.
"I never stole a paper from any box .... I don't have that to do," he wrote. "If anyone saw me take papers they should have felt free to approach then. I surely feel that I'm falsely accused."
In the report, Lewis said he showed the officer the one paper in his vehicle.
He told the Statesboro Herald "I told the police I took one paper. I don't know what he (Stricklin) is talking about. I'll be glad to go to court."
Stricklin said there is no doubt in his mind that he saw the man matching Lewis' description, driving a car registered in Lewis' name, fitting the description of the red convertible with a black top that he drives, take a handful of newspapers, not just one or two.
He said about $600 worth of newspapers have been stolen from that particular rack since April. He said he would have pursued charges against anyone he caught stealing newspapers, "no matter who they are."
"This is an ongoing problem throughout Bulloch County and surrounding counties," he said. "People who would not think of stealing something from somebody's house or a store won't think a thing in the world about taking two papers."
Elliot said up to 10 percent of all newspapers placed in racks daily are stolen.
"Newspapers in these machines are sold to the contracted carrier who then resells them through his or her assigned vending machine. Theft of newspapers from vending machines is a serious drain of income for our carriers and the Statesboro Herald attempts to stem the tide of theft when possible thru several different techniques."
Many people do not realize they are not stealing from the newspaper. They are stealing from independent carrier, Stricklin said.
"I'm an independent carrier. I purchase the papers from the Herald and rent these boxes to sell them," McMillan said. "This is the way I make my living - a quarter at a time. People think when you steal a paper it's insignificant, but it is a big deal to me."
After the eight papers were taken from the Harvey's rack without being paid for, McMillan would have had to sell the remaining copies just to break even, he said."If I have one paper stolen, I have to sell four more to break even."
He said he did not know Lewis, but that it did not matter to him who a person was if they stole from him.
"It doesn't matter who it is, stealing is stealing and wrong is wrong," he said. "The perpetrator made the choice."
Lewis came to the Herald office Friday and said again he did not take more than one newspaper from the box.
A judge will make the determination during the Oct. 13 hearing whether there is probable cause for a warrant to be issued, according to paperwork given to McMillan regarding the hearing. If the judge determines there is probable cause, Lewis would be charged with a misdemeanor.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.