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Cherry Hill Police Sued by Toys for Tots Volunteers

Three volunteers claim they were defamed by allegations of theft last December.

Three Toys for Tots volunteers are suing in federal court, claiming Walgreens, Cherry Hill Police and several media outlets defamed them in reports in December 2012.
Three Toys for Tots volunteers are suing in federal court, claiming Walgreens, Cherry Hill Police and several media outlets defamed them in reports in December 2012.

A trio of volunteers for Toys for Tots are suing Cherry Hill Police, Walgreens and multiple media outlets in the region, claiming their reputations were destroyed last year after reports based on police information and surveillance photos from the Route 70 drug store alleged the three had stolen toys from the donation bins there.

Desmond Newbill, Mary Burton-Newbill and Shawna Boyce are seeking $75,000, plus interest and costs, in the federal lawsuit, which names the parents companies for CBS 3, 6 ABC, NBC 10, FOX 29 and the Courier-Post alongside the police department and drugstore, as well as a slew of unnamed individuals at all the involved parties.

Toy collections through the fall last year had gone as normal, the suit claims, until the Dec. 12, 2012, incident that prompted the legal action.

Newbill, who was the Camden County coordinator for Toys for Tots, Burton-Newbill and Boyce were collecting toys at Walgreens that night, having checked in with store employees as they had done previously, when a pharmacist spotted them on surveillance, the suit alleges.

“The pharmacist...assumed the plaintiffs were stealing the toys out of the toy bin,” the suit alleges, and never bothered to check with the volunteers or other store employees as to what was really going on.

Instead, the pharmacist went straight to police, the suit claims, who in turn spread surveillance footage and the theft allegations to local news outlets via the department's Facebook page in a post that's since been removed.

The plaintiffs claim the police failed to follow proper procedures and accuse the media outlets of libel and slander—though the suit makes no attempt to show how the outlets knew the charges were false, only that they were negligent—in the reports on the allegations, many of which made Grinch references about the trio, claiming those reports were malicious.

The fallout from those reports—on television, online and in print—rained down almost immediately, the suit claims, with more than 100 tips sent into police identifying the three volunteers, exposing them to ridicule and harassment at work and elsewhere.

Newbill turned himself into police to clear up the allegations, the suit says, but was met with further harassment at police headquarters, and it took a phone call from retired Marine Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, the Camden County chairman for Toys for Tots, to convince officers Newbill was acting in an official capacity at Walgreens.

Though police retracted the allegations, the suit claims officers unfairly placed the blame on the volunteers, claiming the reason they'd been fingered as possible thieves was because they failed to check in with store employees—a story counter to what the suit alleges.

While the allegations may have been settled, Newbill, Burton-Newbill and Boyce still suffered as a result, the suit claims, and were forced to take time away from their jobs and other volunteering efforts—Newbill and Burton-Newbill were both closely involved with the Whitman Park Youth Development Group, volunteering as baseball and football coaches—while they waited for the blowback from the allegations to die down.

Burton-Newbill was actually turned away from the Early Childhood Development Center when she went to bring donated toys to underprivileged kids there, the suit alleges, with a teacher there telling her, “they did not want stolen toys.”

The suit, filed Dec. 12, seeks punitive and compensatory damages of at least $75,000.

Cherry Hill Police declined to comment on the suit, as it's currently pending litigation. Representatives for the others named in the suit couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Sheryl December 18, 2013 at 12:01 AM
Bryan, I remember admonishing you last year, for not putting in a retraction, as soon as TV news revealed the mistake. I never saw a retraction in the Patch.
Bryan Littel (Editor) December 18, 2013 at 11:17 AM
Then you missed this - http://goo.gl/IR2IPB
Roger Delgado December 27, 2013 at 11:20 AM
Thank you for running this story. Other local Patch editors have run stories or placed a completely inaccurate spin on stories with personal implications for people and failed to retract them when the truth came out. It takes an honest man to admit mistakes. Thank you again.
Sheryl January 09, 2014 at 06:00 PM
Bryan- thanks for the updates and corrections.

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