Columbus police are investigating an alleged embezzlement that involves a city councilman and his wife.
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon at police headquarters, Police Chief Fred Shelton said an arrest warrant for felony embezzlement had been issued for Sharon Renae Smith, 51, an employee at Bargain Hunt on Highway 45. She is accused of allowing at least seven customers to leave the store with a combined $3,219.45 worth of items.
The suspect turned herself in to police less than an hour after the press conference.
Smith was reportedly not charging customers for certain items, either by ringing them up and deleting the items from the invoice or not ringing them up at all.
Two of those customers were Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones and his wife Stephanie, according to an investigative report CPD distributed to media at the press conference.
Shelton said CPD has charged Smith with felony embezzlement, but none of the seven customers listed on the report — including the Joneses — are expected to face charges.
“This case is being handled just like every case of this type,” Shelton said in a prepared statement at the press conference. “… We have met with a company representative (Tuesday) from Bargain Hunt, and their company policy is to only seek prosecution and restitution from store employees and not any customers involved.”
At this time, Shelton said, police have no evidence tying any of the customers personally to Smith. Nor does CPD have any evidence showing what Smith may have personally gained from the embezzlement.
Store management believes Smith did this with the same customers multiple times, according to the police report. Some of the customers used credit/debit cards for purchases, but left the store with more items than they bought, the report said.
Bargain Hunt’s Loss Prevention began investigating Smith in June, Shelton said, and the store reported the alleged embezzlement Sept. 26.
The store provided police access to surveillance footage showing each of the customers leaving the store with reportedly unpaid items after checking out at Smith’s register. The police report says Jones had been verified to leave the store four times with unpaid items, and his wife had been verified as doing so twice.
In one example listed in the report, Smith rung up an electric fireplace table and a Fanta drink, valued at $200 total, for Jones, but the invoice showed he didn’t pay for those items because they were deleted. In that same instance, Jones was verified to purchase a “type of washer” for $79.99 that was not deleted from the invoice, the report said.
Shelton said Tuesday that city officials had contacted Jones before the press conference.
Jones, speaking to The Dispatch, said that’s not true. He also insists he doesn’t know Smith, and neither he nor his wife did anything wrong.
“I paid for my stuff,” he said. “I used cash and a credit card. I don’t know what happened to the cash (after I gave it to the clerk). I actually had somebody with me when I bought the fireplace who can verify I paid for it.
“I shop there all the time,” he added. “And I’ve (been checked out by) a bunch of different people.”
Jones said the way CPD handled the incident only served to “smear my name” and his next step is to look into his legal options.
“The police didn’t call me or talk to me at all,” he added. “I don’t even have a copy of the report. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”
Mayor Robert Smith told The Dispatch an elected official informed Jones of the investigation in-person about a half-hour before the press conference began.
Speaking with The Dispatch Wednesday morning, Shelton said Sharon Smith had served time in federal prison for a theft-related charge.
She is being held in Lowndes County Adult Detention Center. Her bond has not been set.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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