Police seek 'state of mind' of Wal-Mart pepper spray suspect
Los Angeles police detectives investigating a woman who pepper-sprayed 20 shoppers during a Wal-Mart Black Friday sale described the case "complex" and that it's too early to determine if criminal charges should be filed.
Authorities had originally called the woman a "competitive shopper," who purposely used pepper spray to get merchandise she wanted. But on Monday, officials said they are not clear on her motive.Lt. Tim Torsney said that central to the investigation is trying to determine "the suspect's state of mind at the time the incident took place."
It's possible she believed she was using the pepper spray in self-defense, officials said.
"I'm not saying it was right. It could have been a situation that she was in fear for her safety, that she would be crushed," said LAPD Det. Mike Fesperman. "It (this case) comes down to whether it was a matter of self-preservation or she was trying to gain access to the games."
He said detectives have interviewed 14 witnesses and want to talk to 10 more shoppers. They are also examining store security video and a video posted on YouTube. He said people can be heard on audio from the video saying "I'm being trampled, I'm being crushed."
Fesperman said a "mob mentality" prevailed at the store that night. It was a very chaotic situation."
One legal expert said it could be a challenge to bring criminal charges against the woman who allegedly used the spray.
Defense attorney Dmirty Gorin said the key question is whether the woman used the spray to intentionally cause harm or if she believed she was using it to defend herself.
"Witness interviews regarding the circumstances surrounding the use of the pepper spray hold the key to whether this woman's actions were criminal or legally justified," Gorin said. "In a riot-type atmosphere at midnight on Black Friday, there may have been a literal frenzy among the shoppers. The woman in question had the right to use pepper spray if she reasonably intended to prevent serious injuries to herself or other shoppers."
Detectives plan to interview as many victims of and witnesses to the attack as they can before deciding whether to seek criminal charges.
"We have a ton of witnesses and victims to interview," said LAPD Officer Bruce Borihanh.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene to The Times.
Alejandra Seminario, 24, said she was waiting in line to grab some toys at the store about 9:55 p.m. when people nearby started shouting and ripping at the plastic wrap encasing gaming consoles. The store was supposed to open at 10.
"People started screaming, pulling and pushing each other, and then the whole area filled up with pepper spray," the Sylmar resident said. "I guess what triggered it was people started pulling the plastic off the pallets and then shoving and bombarding the display of games. It started with people pushing and screaming because they were getting shoved onto the boxes."
-- Andrew Blankstein
Photo: The scene outside the Porter Ranch Wal-Mart on Friday evening. Credit: Andrew Blankstein / Los Angeles Times