Alleged shoplifter mistaken for gunman, sets off evacuation

Photo by Brian Trusdell
Walmart employees stand in the parking lot along with a television news crew, a distance from the store on U.S. Route 22 in Union, after police evacuated the building on a report of a masked man with a gun on Aug. 15.

UNION, NJ — A customer who apparently mistook a would-be shoplifter for a potential gunman set off an emergency evacuation of the Walmart store on U.S. Route 22 in Union, police said.

No one was injured in the Aug. 15 incident that had Walmart employees waiting in the parking lot for more than an hour as television news crews descended on the area. Some workers directed traffic through the shopping center, which also includes The Home Depot.

Multiple police units responded and emptied the store of customers and staff when a woman called police at 10:48 a.m. after observing “a man wearing a black mask and holding a black gun in the toy department of the Walmart,” a Union police press release said.
Apparently the man had taken an airsoft pellet gun out of its package, along with a mask that came inside the box, Dan Zieser, the Union police director, said in an email to LocalSource.

“Based on our preliminary investigation, we believe that the witness observed a shoplifting in progress,” the Union police press release said later in the day. “We have no indication at this time that the suspect had the means or intent to cause harm to anyone.”

While police evacuated the store, another team of officers entered the Walmart and searched for the suspect, described as a heavy-set black man wearing gray shorts and a gray T-shirt.Police located a black face mask in the toy department that matched the description given by the caller. They also located an open package, in the same area, that normally contained a mask and a large black airsoft gun matching the description of the gun provided by the caller.

The gun was missing from the package but later was located hidden elsewhere in the store, Zieser said.
The Union Police Department and Union County Prosecutor’s Office later identified the suspect as Joshua K. Phillips, 20, of Newark. Phillips turned himself in at Union Police Department Headquarters on the evening of Aug. 15, after becoming aware of significant media coverage of the incident. He was charged with third-degree creating a false public alarm, third-degree possession of a weapon, and shoplifting, a disorderly persons offense and was lodged in the Union County Jail pending a first appearance and detention hearing.
Convictions on third-degree criminal charges can be punishable by three to five years in state prison.

“I want to commend the swift and thorough response of the Union Police Department, under the leadership of Director Zieser, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, especially Chief Gagliardi and Sgt. Daniel Fay, the county’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, as well as the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI,” Acting Union County Prosecutor Lindsay V. Ruotolo said in a press release. Thankfully, this turned out to be a false alarm, but their prompt mobilization of resources and collaboration should be a comfort to the citizens of Union County.”