HONOLULU – Nicole Leszczynski couldn't imagine that two chicken salad sandwiches would land her and her husband in jail and her 2-year-old daughter in state custody. But it happened five days ago, when the 30-weeks-pregnant woman forgot to pay for her snack while grocery shopping.
"It was the most ridiculous chain of events that happened," she said while sobbing Monday. "It's still hard to believe what happened."
Leszczynski, 28, and her husband Marcin, 33, were handcuffed, searched then released on $50 bail each. Their ordeal at the police station lasted a few hours, but their daughter Zofia spent the night away from her parents in a case that has sparked nationwide outrage and forced the Safeway supermarket chain to review the incident.
The family had moved to an apartment near downtown Honolulu from California two weeks ago. Still settling in, they ventured out Wednesday to stock up on groceries, took the bus, got lost, and ended up at a Safeway supermarket.
Famished, the former Air Force staff sergeant picked up the two sandwiches that together cost $5. She openly munched on one while they shopped, saving the wrapper to be scanned at the register later.
But they forgot to pay for the sandwiches as they checked out with about $50 worth of groceries.
"When the security guard questioned us, I was really embarrassed, I was horrified," she said. They were led upstairs, where the couple expected to get a lecture, pay for the sandwiches, and be allowed on their way.
But store managers wouldn't allow them to pay for the sandwiches, she said.
"I asked to talk to a manager and he said it was against their policy to pay for items that left the store," she said. "The security guard said we were being charged with shoplifting."
Four hours later, a police officer arrived and read them their rights. A woman from the state Child Welfare Services arrived to take Zofia away.
The pregnant mother said she tried to keep her composure until Zofia, who turns 3 in December, left the store. "I didn't want Zofia to be scared because she's never spent a night away from us. She didn't have her stuffed animal. She didn't have her toothbrush."
But as soon as her daughter left, "I got completely hysterical. I went to the bathroom and I threw up," she recalled.
A Honolulu police spokeswoman said it was procedure to call Child Welfare Services if a child is present when both parents are arrested. The store's management did not know the girl would be taken away, said Susan Houghton, a spokeswoman for California-based Safeway.
The national supermarket chain said it was looking into the incident. "It was never our intent to separate a mother from her child. That was a very unfortunate consequence to this situation," Houghton said. "We understand the outrage. We are concerned about how this was handled."
Leszczynski called the incident "so horrifying, it seemed to escalate and no one could say, 'this is too much.'"
The couple was handcuffed and driven separately to police headquarters a few blocks away, where they were searched, had their mug shots taken and then released after paying bail. A police officer escorted them back to the store — which banned them for a year, Leszczynski said — where they picked up their groceries and walked home just before midnight.
"We basically stared at each other all night. We woke up at the crack of dawn and called (the state child welfare office)," Leszczynski said. While they waited, Leszczynski vented about the experience on babycenter.com and contacted a lawyer for help with being reunited with Zofia. At the lawyer's suggestion, they took their story to the media.
Zofia was returned after an 18-hour separation from her parents.
The couple is charged with fourth-degree theft, a petty misdemeanor, and has a court date on Nov. 28, according to the city prosecutor's office. The family hasn't decided whether it will pursue legal action against Safeway.
Houghton said the company will review the police report and store security footage before deciding whether to press charges.