SWFL student bullied, branded a thief and banned from retailer; wants name cleared

Reporter: Céline McArthur
Published: Updated:

How do you stop shoplifting? It’s a problem major retailers say they’re battling across the country. Some are shutting down locations, others are stepping up security. But one Lee County man says those security measures go too far.

Austin Luper, 21, is a professional photographer.

“I was 18 enrolled in FGCU for nursing, and then picked up photography and started shooting like FGCU athletics,” Luper said.

As his business grew, so did his need for equipment, so he became a frequent customer at Best Buy.

“I’ve gone a lot of times. I’m always there,” explains Luper. But he says his latest experience nearly landed him in jail.

On March 4, Luper went into Best Buy at Page Field in south Fort Myers. He needed a microphone, a light and a drone. The first two were in stock, so he brought them to checkout. He then asked the cashier about the store’s price match guarantee since he found a better deal online for the microphone.

“They told me they couldn’t do it because it was a third party and I was like confused, so in my head, I’m thinking, okay, so I guess I have to pay full price since they can’t price match it,” Luper said. “She rung everything up, and everything was in front of me. And then she bagged a bunch of items and handed me a receipt. I picked up the bag and the mic was right next to the bag, so I picked up the mic with it and I walked out.”

Professional photographer Austin Luper.

No alarms went off and no one stopped him. Luper then drove to the Best Buy in Estero to buy the drone. After spending more than $1,200 at both stores that day, he headed home. That’s when he says he got a call from Deputy Robert Brown with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

“Immediately starts off yelling at me about how I stole merchandise,” Luper recalled. “And he told me I had 15 minutes to get all the way back to the Cleveland Best Buy before he shows up and arrests me.”

Luper quickly pulled out the receipts and realized something was missing. “So, then I was like, so she didn’t ring up the mic,” he said.

When he got back to the store, he told the deputy he wanted to talk to the manager.

“Well, he’s like, ‘Alright, let’s go in.’ I go in. And they already have all the paperwork done – the reports for theft. The USB with all the footage was already handed to the cop. Like they already had everything done before I even showed up,” Luper said.

He said he wasn’t allowed to see the surveillance footage or talk to the cashier he believes is responsible for this mix-up.

LCSO Deputy Brown did not charge him with a crime but did take his picture and gave him a trespass warning notice that labels him a “violator,” and bans him from Best Buy for a year.

“I’m just like, there’s no way this is really happening right now,” Luper exclaimed.

He also worries about his future, how potential clients and prospective employers would react if they did a background check and found this report.

“If they were to see this and see theft, I can almost guarantee you they’re not going to hire me over the other guy. Simple,” says Luper. “And the same thing goes with nursing. You can’t get hired with any criminal record.”

I head over to the Best Buy on South Cleveland Avenue, with that report in hand, to talk to a manager to see what they say led up to this trespass warning. The manager says she can’t talk without corporate approval.

Best Buy corporate tells me all reporter requests must be submitted via email. That’s the only way anyone, including Executive Vice President and Chief Communications and Corporate Affairs Officer Matt Furman, will potentially address an issue.

Celine: “They don’t take any phone calls?”

I called the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to speak to the deputy who wrote the report. My request was denied.

Criminal defense attorney Lance Dunford is not connected to this case, but I asked him to weigh in.

“Doesn’t seem to pass the common sense test,” Dunford said.

“I am nine times out of 10 advising my clients, you have the right to remain silent – use it.,” Dunford explained. “This is that one out of 10 where I very likely would have told him, just tell the truth, you have nothing to hide. This was an honest mistake.”

And he thinks the Lee County Sheriff’s Office knows that.

“Whether they believed him or not they knew that there was enough to say it could have been a mistake because they did not charge him with theft,” says Dunford. “And that’s huge, right? Probable cause is all that’s required to arrest somebody.”

But the Lee County Sheriff’s Office allowed this trespass warning, an official and publicly accessible report, to stand as is. The narrative does not include the cashier’s account of what happened or Luper’s explanation.

“You want to hear both sides of the story, but they won’t even let the other side of the story be told,” says Dunford.

“My trouble is not seeing the evidence being held against me. That’s my thing,” Luper said. “It’s almost like you’re hiding something like, Why? Why wouldn’t you show me?”

We asked Best Buy and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office for a copy of the surveillance video. No response from Best Buy, and LCSO says it’s “looking into it.”

We will follow up and keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you have something you want me to investigate, email me at celine.mcarthur@winknews.com.

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