CAMDEN, N.J. (CN) - Police and major media outlets defamed three Toys for Tots volunteers as thieves, publishing surveillance videos of them collecting donated toys from a bin, as they had done for years, the volunteers claim in Federal Court.
Two of the plaintiffs, husband and wife, work full time as attendance officers for the local school district. All three have volunteered with Toys for Tots for 5 years, according to the 19-count lawsuit.
School district workers Desmond Newbill and his wife, Mary Burton Newbill, have 6-year-old twins, run a youth development group, and have volunteered in Camden youth sports for more than 20 years.
They and Shawna Boyce sued Cherry Hill Township and its Police Department, Gannett Co., CBS, Walt Disney Co., Comcast, Fox, and Walgreen, whose employee reported them to the police for collecting the toys.
The Newbills and Boyce claim the police and media defamed them as Grinches who stole Christmas, ruining their reputations by accusing them of stealing toys they actually were collecting for needy children.
Desmond Newbill was the Camden County coordinator for Toys for Tots at the time, according to the 52-page lawsuit.
Walgreen asked Toys for Tots for collection bins for its Camden County stores, and the Newbills obliged, delivering a bin to the Cherry Hill Walgreens and emptying it without incident from October 2012 until early December that year.
Then came the fiasco.
On Dec. 12, Desmond Newbill and Shawna Boyce "made their presence known to the Walgreen personnel at the cash registers, in the front of the store," the complaint states. "Plaintiffs Desmond Newbill and Shawna Boyce were greeted as normal and proceeded to empty the toy bin as normal."
But "a Walgreen pharmacist, located in the back of the store, noticed the plaintiffs Desmond Newbill and Shawna Boyce on the surveillance camera emptying the toy bin. The pharmacist, for reasons unknown to plaintiffs, assumed the plaintiffs were stealing the toys out of the toy bin. Instead of coming to the front of the store to ascertain the true nature of the plaintiffs' actions and/or checking with the personnel at the cash registers and/or store manager, the pharmacist called defendant Police Department and reported the theft of the 'Toys for Tots' toys," the complaint states.
"Defendant Police Department, upon arrival at the Walgreen store, questioned the pharmacist and took a statement and the surveillance video, which showed the plaintiff Desmond Newbill and Shawna Boyce's face and likeness. Defendant Police Department determined that a theft had in fact occurred and without any formal investigation immediately proceeded to post the story about the theft on social media, their 'Facebook Page,' along with the surveillance video."
Cherry Hill Police released the surveillance video to the media, including four network television affiliates and the Courier-Post newspaper, in hope of finding Desmond Newbill and Shawna Boyce and arresting them.
The media obligingly published articles characterizing Desmond Newbill and Shawn Boyce as "Grinch(es) That Stole Christmas."
"Defendants in their haste to make a mythical and hated Christmas character and story come to life failed to consider the damage that such a story would have on the plaintiffs' character, safety, mental state and ability to function in the communities in which they work, live and serve," the plaintiffs say.
After publication, the Newbills got threatening phone calls and other backlash, so at the urging of his wife, Newbill turned himself in to the Cherry Hill Police Department to clear his name, and Boyce's.
But at the police station, Desmond was interrogated and harassed, until he called the chairman of the Camden County Toys for Tots program, Marine Corps Major General Keith Walker, who corroborated his story.
Newbill was released and the police and media retracted their stories: but continued to blame them for not showing identification, according to the lawsuit.
"The day after his release by defendant Police Department, plaintiff Desmond Newbill and Mary Burton-Newbill were called in for questioning by their full-time work supervisor, Ms. Ramona Pearson-Hunter of the Camden City School District," the complaint states. "The supervisor was aware of the allegations against plaintiffs Desmond Newbill and Shawna Boyce. Plaintiff Desmond Newbill explained to Ms. Pearson-Hunter what had taken place. Ms. Pearson-Hunter did not think it was a good idea for plaintiff Desmond Newbill to face the children at school under the current set of circumstances and advised plaintiff Desmond Newbill to take some time off and she would fill in for him, while they sorted things out."
The Newbills were also shunned at Little League practice and Mary was turned away by a teacher of needy children at the Early Childhood Development Center in Camden, because the children did not "want stolen toys and refused to accept the Toys for Tots donations," according to the lawsuit.
"As a proximate result of the newspaper articles and television broadcasts, plaintiffs suffered the loss of their reputation, shame, mortification and injury to their feelings," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs seek damages for defamation, privacy invasion, prima facie tort, emotional distress, loss of consortium, civil rights violations and other charges.
They are represented by Justin Cohen with Richman Berenbaum & Associates, in Philadelphia.
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