The Missouri National Guard has released records confirming that four soldiers were disciplined for taking merchandise from the ruins of a Wal-Mart store in Joplin one day after the tornado that devastated the city a year ago.
The names of the soldiers were redacted from the records released to the Globe by the Guard on Tuesday. They are identified only as three specialists and a sergeant who were part of a team of 16 soldiers assigned to look for survivors and assist in recovery operations on May 23, 2011, at the Wal-Mart store at 1501 S. Range Line Road.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week that the Guard did not respond to an open-records request for details about purported post-tornado looting by Guard members.
Brig. Gen. Randy Alewel, commander of the 35th Engineer Brigade, had acknowledged that members of his unit took items after the tornado that claimed 161 lives and wiped out thousands of homes and businesses in Joplin. But Alewel had not provided any further details.
While the Guard is exempted from the Missouri Sunshine Law, Maj. Tammy Spicer said last week that the Guard seeks to provide “the maximum amount of information allowed under the laws that we follow.”
The 13 pages of memorandums released Tuesday reveal that an internal investigation determined that the soldiers took merchandise under the impression that it was going to be discarded by Wal-Mart.
Two specialists took hand-held Nintendo video game players valued at $138 and $169, according to the memos. A third specialist took a Kodak Easyshare camera priced at about $115. The sergeant took a notebook-size Nintendo video game player, some Xbox games and a headset, with an estimated combined retail value of $354.
The officer who conducted the investigation for the Guard reported that two of the specialists were working together in the same area of the store when they took items. Similarly, the sergeant and the third specialist were together when they decided to take items. But neither pairing was aware of the other two soldiers’ actions until they were confronted about the matter later in the week, and all four male soldiers admitted to taking items, according to the investigator’s findings.
The sergeant told the investigator that he had spoken to someone he believed to be a Wal-Mart employee about what would happen to the merchandise on the floor of the ruined store and was told that it would be destroyed. The sergeant acknowledged that he later was asked by the specialist working with him if it would be OK to take an item; he told him it would be since it was just going to be discarded.
The memos indicate that the thefts came to light when a female specialist saw that particular specialist put a video game player in his pocket and heard him ask the sergeant if that would be all right. She told the sergeant and the specialist that she thought it was wrong, and they told her the store was giving items away.
She later reported the matter to higher-ups “because she was frustrated no one would listen to her,” a memo states.
While all four soldiers admitted the thefts and returned the items to their superiors, the sergeant initially returned the video games but not the game player. When a staff sergeant confronted him about the missing game player, he brought one in. But it came to the attention of his superiors that the items he had returned all appeared to be used and not new enough to have just been on a store shelf.
The sergeant “ultimately admitted switching out” the video games and game player for used ones “because he had given the new one to his son and was embarrassed to ask for it back,” the records state. He then was made to turn in the ones he actually had taken.
The records show that the investigating officer recommended that the three specialists be demoted to privates first class and be issued formal letters of reprimand from the battalion commander to be placed in their files. The recommendation with respect to the sergeant was that he be demoted to specialist, that he receive a nonjudicial form of punishment, and that an administrative reprimand be placed in his file.
The records do not reveal what disciplinary measures were taken.
MISSOURI NATIONAL GUARD records state that all soldiers who were deployed to assist in search and recovery efforts in Joplin after the May 22, 2011, tornado were told in advance “not to take anything other than essentials if they were offered by civilians.”