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Profiling victim or petty thief?

Kerfuffle at store latest run-in with police, retailers

– Ralph Cowing describes himself as a hard worker, a good father and good husband.

And as a black Italian man, he says he’s also a target.

In his mind, that was clear Tuesday when a shopping trip to a Do-it-Best store on Illinois Road turned into a media frenzy – at least by Fort Wayne standards.

Soon, there were television reports stating that city police were investigating a possible kidnapping or abduction near Sycamore Hills. Those morphed into police investigating an attempted shoplifting at a store, and that police captured a man – Cowing – after he “fled” the scene with a little girl in his arms.

But police never made an arrest or charged him with a crime.

Cowing told television news stations Tuesday night that he was a victim of racial profiling. In response, police released multiple reports Wednesday painting a very different picture of Cowing.

It’s a picture of a man suspected of shoplifting at several shops in the area, a man never charged or arrested but who has been banned from some big-box stores and restaurants.

It’s a picture Cowing vehemently disputes.

“I’m no criminal,” he says. “Never was, never will be.”

Different versions

What thrust Cowing into the forefront of media scrutiny began with what he describes as a simple shopping trip to the Do-it-Best store the day before, on Monday.

During this trip, he claims two employees were “hawking” him as he made his way through the store.

He had his 2-year-old stepdaughter with him, and that meant he was carrying her diaper bag as well.

Cowing, currently unemployed, says he’s worked in loss prevention at a local Walgreens and a local Family Dollar store.

“When you see an ethnic man walking around with a bag, your hair stands on end,” Cowling says. “You want to know what’s in that bag.”

That’s exactly what happened Monday, Cowing says, and what has happened multiple times since he moved here from Chicago roughly six years ago.

Cowing said he told the employees that he found what they were doing offensive and that he would talk to their manager the next day.

On Tuesday, he says, he went back to the store with his daughter to do just that – and maybe buy some smoke alarms and a shovel or two.

This is where Cowing’s version of events and that of police begin to differ.

According to Cowing, he was approached by the manager from behind just as he was fishing wipes out of his diaper bag to take care of his daughter’s soiled diaper.

“She comes around the corner and says, ‘What did you just put in the bag?’ ” Cowing says. “That’s the thing that really pisses me off so much. I never put anything in my bag, and she never saw me put anything in my bag.”

After arguing, Cowing claims he showed her his bag with only wipes inside and that the woman turned “beet red.”

In a Fort Wayne Police report, the manager told officers that her store was on the lookout for Cowing because of a possible theft at the Do-it-Best on Dupont Road.

Specifically, she said, they were to be on the lookout for a man using a small child to conceal what he was doing.

She also told officers that after being approached, Cowing dumped smoke alarms out of the diaper bag, complained of being harassed and began to leave the store. That’s when she called police.

In Cowing’s version, he never dumped smoke alarms from the bag. He took them out of the cart.

As he made his way out of the store, he says, a man with white hair and a wrinkled face wearing a white shirt then ordered him to stop.

When Cowing asked whether he was a police officer, the man said he was a security guard. Cowing claims the man then pulled a gun and threatened to shoot him in the legs.

That’s what made Cowing run behind the stores, toward Sycamore Hills, he says.

In the police reports, there is no mention of a security guard pulling a gun.

In one police report, a deputy chief notes that Cowing left his wife and three children in a car in the parking lot.

Cowing, though, claims that his wife had been at the nearby Burger King and that he didn’t see her when he left the store.

Scared by the man with the gun, he took off until he saw squad cars at Sycamore Hills, he says, which he ran toward.

Someone who saw him running with the young girl called police to report about the possible abduction.

‘Celebrity thief’

Since Cowing did not leave the store with any merchandise, police did not charge him with a crime. The manager at the Do-it-Best told officers he was now banned from the store, though.

It’s not a first for Cowing.

He’s been banned from a Walmart.

He’s forbidden to go into a local Dairy Queen.

He can no longer eat at Ziano’s.

He’s been accused of stealing from a Dollar General.

There are police reports to go with all of these accusations, and they come with claims that Cowing was either stealing, trying to steal or in some way trying to mooch his way to free food.

What none of these incidents include are arrests.

“You can ban someone from a store for any reason whatsoever,” Cowing says. “Did you know that? If I give a wrong look, they can ban you from the store.”

At the south-side Walmart, security accused Cowing last year of trying to make off with memory cards, adapters and a child’s digital camcorder.

Cowing said the whole incident was a misunderstanding, that he was meeting his wife at the store and that he was buying her anniversary gifts.

He claims he had asked whether he could keep those items in his bag so she wouldn’t see them.

The Walmart declined to prosecute him – he never left the store – but banned him from its premises, according to a police report.

At Dairy Queen, he was accused of trying to exchange food that did not come from the restaurant and being rude to the employees.

Cowing’s version: The employees were rude to him and his family every time they came in, giving them less-than-adequate hot fudge for their sundaes and charging them extra for more.

Employee’s at Ziano’s told police he frequently complained about the food and, multiple times, left without paying the check.

Cowing says he didn’t pay the check when his family did not eat the food because it was so awful.

And like the Walmart and Dairy Queen and now Do-it-Best, he was banned from Ziano’s as well.

Now, Cowing says, it’s the police who are out to make him look like the bad guy by releasing all these police reports.

“I’m now a celebrity thief. I’m called the shoplifter; … now they’re focusing on making me look like a thief,” he says.

So why not leave town?

Cowing said he never ran into this in Chicago, only since he’s moved to southwest Fort Wayne, in a quiet neighborhood off West Hamilton Road.

“I built a home here. I’m not going to run from people because they’re stupid,” he says.

So he plans on staying. No matter how many places he can no longer go into.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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