BE AWARE.

It was this past Friday.  I took all three kids shopping with me (something I typically don’t do much of- I run errands while Scott’s working from home so I can leave them with him), as we headed to WalMart to get supplies and food for the girls’ birthday party.  We shopped through the produce and baked goods, moved back to the snacks, and over to the party section.

I noticed him in the grocery aisles, the first time I saw him.  He was tall, with a black backward hat, black t-shirt, black jeans.  He was by himself, probably in his twenties, no big deal.  I saw him again as we were looking for tea cups in the housewares aisle, and then again as we were looking for party favors.  The girls were looking at hairbows, and he reached to grab something behind me on the other side of the aisle.  Close enough that he should have at least said “excuse me,” or just wait til I moved, and I instantly felt uncomfortable.  And it was there, near the party favors, that I thought it was odd that we had seen him a few times in a store so large.

Our WalMart is a Super-Center, with a grocery store and a regular WalMart all in one, so it’s a huge store.  Sure, you might run into a person a few several times in a normal Kroger or Aldi and think nothing of it, weaving up and down the short aisles in a predictable pattern.  But as the kids and I skipped across the store, from corner to corner, and different department to different department, in this enormous store, he kept showing up.  It was too much of a coincidence not to be on purpose.  And I started to get scared.

We were getting a lot of things in lots of different places in the store, so we really did go from one corner to the other- produce to party goods, to the garden section, back to snacks, and over to the seasonal products.  As we collected everything on our list, he showed up in every department.  He would be looking at his phone or would have it up to his ear as he was looking around, and he always had a small item or two in his hands- from whatever department we were currently in.  But not a cart, and he never seemed to carry the same items from one section to the other.  He wasn’t shopping.

By the time we had completed our shopping, my anxiety was building up.  I was second guessing myself, though, thinking maybe it was just a coincidence that we kept seeing him.  So I started zig-zagging through the store, going from one random section to the other, across the store, to see if he would turn up.  And every time, he did.  Then I was scared.  We were finished shopping, and I wanted to get OUT of the store, but I knew we couldn’t leave.  So I called Scott.

He was on the other line, and the calls went straight to voicemail.  I texted him, “CALL ME,” and when he texted back that he was on a call and what was up, I texted back, “I’m being followed at WalMart.”  Practically one second after I hit send, he called me back.  I explained what was happening, and he said, “you stay right where you are, I’m calling the cops.  Put all the kids in the cart.” I stayed where I was in the store, around as many people as I could.  He called back and he kept reassuring me that everything was going to be fine and that he was on his way (later he told me he was doing 70 mph through Loganville, running stop signs, and parked in the emergency parking to get in as fast as he could).  Then Police Department called me, and kept me calm, assuring me that two officers were on their way to meet me.

Scott showed up first, and I was very relieved, but still worked up.  In the time since I had been on the phone with Scott, Brantley had started to catch on that something was wrong.  She kept looking at me, trying to read my face, and all I could tell her was that “everything is fine, no problem, everything is fine.”  When Scott got there, I got emotional, but still tried to keep it together so the kids wouldn’t be scared.  The officers arrived shortly thereafter, and I explained the whole situation to them.  And it was then, that he walked straight towards us.  Scott looked at him, looked at me, and said, “is that the guy?”  I said, “YES.”

The officers went over to speak with him for a few minutes.  I got really nervous then, afraid of who this guy might be, or if I had just accused some innocent guy of following us through the store.  But the officers returned a few minutes later.  They explained that he had been in the store since 7am (it was now 2pm), and that his car was being worked on.  He was just waiting around and was wandering through the store.  He said we had crossed paths a few times, and he apologized if I was upset.  He would wait outside the store until after we left.

Initially, I was again relieved.  Scott kept saying, “best case scenario,” and I agreed.  I apologized to the officers, but what they said to me stuck in my head, and I didn’t feel bad or embarrassed for having called them out.  He said, “No need to apologize.  You were uncomfortable, and when you feel threatened, you call the police.  You did the right thing.”  We checked out, Scott walked to the car with us and helped us load the car, and we all headed home.  We got home, unpacked, and I didn’t do a bit of work the rest of the day.  I was utterly exhausted from the rush of adrenaline and severe anxiety, and it took me several hours to come down from the experience.

***

As I’ve thought more and more about it, the less I think this guy was an innocent party.  Perhaps he was just randomly wandering the store.  But I can’t believe that it was just coincidence that he was EVERYWHERE we went.  And with a Burger King inside the WalMart, and with us being in the store for over an hour, I can’t imagine that if I had been in the store all day, that I wouldn’t have grabbed a book or magazine, and camped out at a table in the Burger King.  And unfortunately, we don’t believe the police officers checked his ID or even verified that his car was, in fact, being worked on.  We will likely never know (and I pray we DON’T) if he was being honest, or what his intentions were that day.

All I know is that in the past year or so, I have seen so many Facebook posts about women being targeted in large shopping centers while shopping with their children.  They talk about being watched, and single men following them around, often with a small item or two in their hands, which was exactly my experience.  There are also stories in the news about sex trafficking rings here in Georgia, and even one man that was just arrested in LOGANVILLE last week for being a part of a state-wide sex trafficking ring.  It has made me terrified, and hyper aware of where the kids are while I’m shopping, and keeping them close, keeping distractions to a minimum, and being aware of my surroundings.

I write this today to share my story.  Like I mentioned, I have read these warning stories on Facebook, and I’ve read enough to make me nervous and make me intentional about being aware of my surroundings while I’m out.  But I don’t personally know any of the authors of those posts, and even though I have been aware, I have felt a little disconnected, thinking, “this wouldn’t happen near me.”   But this is MY story.  And not only did it happen near me, it happened TO me.  My own experience.  And I know a lot of my friends shop at WalMart, and shop other places around town with their kids in tow.  When it happens to someone close, or someone you know, or someone who frequents a location you are familiar with, you may take notice.  I hope reading this will make you TAKE NOTICE when you are out on a seemingly routine grocery run.  Or Costco trip.  Or at your local Target.  BE AWARE.

And please, also take into consideration that while I am so, SO grateful and SO blessed that I came home safely with all three of my kids unharmed, and I pray that it really was some guy just wandering the store, it could possibly have been a totally different outcome.  I did some things right, but I also did some things wrong that I need to learn from, and I hope you can learn from too.

Things I Did Right:

I stayed in the store, in a visible area.  As much as I wanted to LEAVE and get out of there, I knew I couldn’t go out into an unsecured parking lot and potentially have him follow me out to the car.  I stayed in the store where we were safer.

I called for help.  I didn’t try to handle it on my own, I called in for help.

I stayed calm.  While I kept my composure, the kids stayed calm as well.

Things I did WRONG:

I called my husband first, instead of calling 911.  I got this from Scott AND from the 911 operator.  As soon as I felt uncomfortable, I should have wasted no time, and called 911 right away.  Though Scott called them quickly, in that short delay, if something had happened, 911 could have given much more assistance and been more helpful than Scott could have.

I second guessed my intuition.  Like the police officer said, If you are uncomfortable and feel threatened, you call the police.  Instead, I kept thinking, “well what if it’s nothing?” and didn’t want to involve the authorities.  I think that’s even why I called Scott first, almost like for him to help me decide if it was serious enough to involve the police.  But if you feel threatened, you call the police.  And I was scared.  I was confident something was wrong.  And would you rather be embarrassed for making something out of nothing or have your safety or THE SAFETY OF YOUR CHILD threatened?  Easy answer.

I should have gone to Customer Service.  Scott and the 911 operator told me to stay where I was in the store so they could find me, and that’s what I did.  But if I had gone to Customer Service, and told them that someone was following me and I was on the phone with the police, and we were waiting on responding officers, they could have notified the store managers to be on the lookout.  Instead, when Scott rushing in to find me and speak with someone, he found a manager that had no idea what was going on, because I had not notified anyone in the store.

***

I would not wish the experience that I had last Friday on my worst enemy.  But if anything positive can come of it, I have learned that being aware of your surroundings and trusting your gut when you are out, especially with your children, is of paramount importance, and I hope other women can learn the same lesson without the personal experience.  I can’t let my mind wander to think about what could have happened, and I have thanked the good Lord every minute that he kept us safe.  It’s terribly sad that we have to be vigilant in keeping ourselves and our children safe while shopping for groceries and party supplies on an ordinary Friday afternoon, but that is the world we live in.  So please, please, BE AWARE.

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