ST. LOUIS – Nearly three years after Heather Ellis switched checkout lines at a southeast Missouri store and touched off what she calls a racially charged dispute with white customers and authorities, the young black schoolteacher faces a trial that could send her to prison for 15 years.
Witnesses have told authorities that Ellis cut in front of waiting customers at the Walmart in Kennett on Jan. 6, 2007, shoved merchandise already placed on a conveyor belt out of the way, and became belligerent when confronted, according to court filings.
Ellis maintains she was merely joining her cousin, whose checkout line was moving more quickly. She claimed in a written complaint to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that she was then pushed by a white customer, hassled by store employees, called racial slurs and physically mistreated by Kennett police officers.
Police say in court documents that Ellis refused requests to calm down and leave the property, allegedly kicking one's shin and splitting another's lip while resisting arrest. Her trial on charges of assaulting police officers, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace begins Wednesday in Dunklin County Circuit Court. Syracuse, N.Y.-based Your Black World Coalition is organizing a Monday rally in Kennett.
A college student in New Orleans at the time of her arrest, the 24-year-old Ellis now teaches in Louisiana, where she is engaged to a state trooper. She has said she feels trapped by "small-town politics" in Kennett, where her family lives.
"What a shame the system can destroy a young person's future like this because of bad cops," Ellis wrote to the NAACP in April.
The group subsequently held a rally in Kennett. Before the June 13 event began, police officers found threatening letters the size of business cards scattered along the route that said the Ku Klux Klan had paid a visit and "the next visit will not be social."
Dunklin County Prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff said the cards were removed and the source investigated but never discovered. He said he doubts the cards actually were from the KKK; he knows of no KKK presence in the area. A call to the KKK headquarters was not answered.
As for Ellis' allegations of mistreatment by law enforcement, Sokoloff said he's "seen absolutely no evidence of any kind, apart from her statements, that those things occurred." Kennett Police Chief Barry Tate did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Kennett is a town of roughly 11,000 residents, about 1,500 of them black. The police department also is predominantly white, but has actively worked to recruit more women and minorities, said longtime resident Charles B. Brown, who served as mayor from 1991 to 2003.
"We're a small country town with greater problems than racism. Our problems are economic," he said, explaining that Kennett needs more jobs.
Some community leaders fear the "big paint roller" being used by observers of Ellis' case has resulted in unfair portrayals of the town as prejudiced.
"They're searching their hearts and minds, and that's just not us," he said.
Sokoloff said he would have filed the same charges regardless of the races of those involved. Last week, he took himself off the case, telling the Southeast Missourian newspaper he hoped it would refocus attention on the facts. A special prosecutor from Cape Girardeau County was appointed.
Ellis and her lawyers, Scott Rosenblum and T.J. Hunsaker in St. Louis, declined to comment on the specifics of the case. She has previously rejected plea deals.
"Why would you plea bargain if you're innocent?" said Ellis' father, the Rev. Nathaniel Ellis of Kennett.
"This is not a matter of justice," he said. "It's a vendetta."
Ellis' written account to the NAACP describes she and her cousin getting into separate checkout lanes before Ellis switched into the faster-moving line. The woman behind them had placed items on the conveyor belt, and Ellis alleged the woman pushed her when she tried to put her own items down.
Witnesses instead told police that Ellis shoved the woman's merchandise back, according to court filings.
Ellis wrote that a security officer and manager were called over and that although Ellis said she wanted to pay, the manager yelled at her to leave the store. Police were called and arrived.
Officers eventually followed her to the parking lot, she said, using racial slurs and telling her to go back to the ghetto. As her aunt and uncle drove into the parking lot, Ellis said, the officers "jumped" on her even though she said she was not resisting.
Officer A.W. Fisher wrote in a probable cause statement that Ellis was given "every opportunity" to comply with officers and leave the property. He said she used an expletive in telling him she would beat him if he put his hands on her.
Fisher said he then told Ellis she was under arrest, but she would not stop fighting while being handcuffed.
Following her arrest, Ellis alleged, she was thrown against doors on the way into jail and an officer later twisted her shirt with his knuckle to choke her while she was in custody.
"Incidents involving our customers are unfortunate and we take them seriously," Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said in a statement earlier this month. "In this matter, there was a disturbance and law enforcement was contacted, in accordance with our normal procedures. The police then determined how to proceed."