Store apologizes to reporter for destroying film

In attempt to eliminate 'smoking gun,' manager slices student's negatives

MISSOURI -- When student reporters at the Webster Groves High School Echodecided to do a story on illegal cigarette sales to minors, they had no idea they would be part of a news story themselves.

But after a student's film was destroyed by a co-manager at one of the stores, the incident became the lead story on the evening news.

Reporters Hilary Johnson and Katie Zach were investigating the number of local stores that illegally sell cigarettes to minors for the January issue of the Echo. On Jan. 6, the two underage reporters visited 12 different stores and were able to purchase cigarettes at six of them.

The next day, the students came into the school's newspaper office with six packs of cigarettes.

"I insisted that the girls go back and actually talk to the places and give them a chance to respond," said Echo adviser Donald Johnson.

That evening, editor Amy Cook, armed with her camera, joined Johnson and Zach. On their return to Schnucks Supermarketone of the stores that sold them cigarettesa store employee confiscated and destroyed Cook's film after the reporters asked why the store had sold cigarettes to them without asking for identification.

According to Hilary Johnson, store co-manager Jane Cooper "pretty much said that there was no way that we could have possibly bought cigarettes at Schnucks that night unless we showed fake IDs or got someone to buy them who was over-age. She basically said we were lying."

"The situation was getting a little tense," Donald Johnson said, "so the young ladies started to leave and [Cooper] said, 'Oh no, we're going to settle this right here and now.'" Then Cooper took Cook's camera and cut up her film.

After the incident, Cook contacted News Channel 5, KSDK, and the girls' story was the first spot on the following Monday's news.

After News Channel 5's report on the incident, Schnucks issued a public apology for Cooper's actions and gave Cook a coupon for five free rolls of film and developing.

Marie Casey, a spokeswoman for Schnucks, said the incident does not reflect the nature of the company.

"The manager in question was not acting according to store policy," she said. "Schnucks sincerely regrets this ever happened and would have whether it came to light or not."

The Echo published the story in its Jan. 31 edition and included a copy of the receipt from the reporters' cigarette purchase at Schnucks.    

reports, Spring 2000