Thursday, August 17, 2023

Remembering That Time I Tried to Stop a Shoplifter at the Wrentham Outlets

July 31, 2023. I hadn’t been to the Wrentham Outlets since before COVID and I was in the market for some new sneakers. Thus, I thought it was a good time to “hit up the outlets,” as the cool kids like to say.


The first thing I noticed about the gigantic outdoor Wrentham Outlet Mall, established in 1997 featuring such outlet stores as Nike, Old Navy, Burberry and Bloomingdale’s, was that it was a completely different scene from what I experienced a couple weeks earlier at the Emerald Square Mall (read about this in my blog HERE), which is basically located right up the street from the outlets, only about 15 minutes away. Where ‘The Emerald’ was basically a ghost mall (some even call it a “dead” mall), the Wrentham outlets were more alive than ever. It was around 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of a Monday and there were TONS of people there and I mean TONS!


Most of these people appeared to be tourists and many of them appeared to be from foreign countries. They all smelled nice. Whenever I passed them by, I could get whiffs of cologne, perfume and/or body lotions—heck, maybe it was only their shampoo—but, whatever it was, it smelled great. They were all dressed nice as well. I’m talking designer clothing, designer sunglasses, designer purses, and designer sandals with well-pedicured toes and all.


Overall, the people at the Wrentham outlets were absolutely beautiful people. And I’m talking both the women and the men.


But especially the women. I don’t know if I’m going to sound like a male chauvinist pig when I say this, but I hadn’t seen so many hot chicks in one place at one time in quite a while. And a lot of them were dressed in rather revealing clothing. The style these days seems to be wearing extremely short denim shorts that ride up so high that you can begin to see cheeks, if you know what I mean.


Walking around the outlets, I felt both underdressed and somewhat outclassed or maybe completely outclassed. I was wearing a nice pair of plaid shorts that I got at Kohls, a Repo Man T-shirt (FYI: Repo Manis a cult film from 1984 starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton), a baseball cap that said O’Neill on it, Nike-brand prescription sunglasses and lemon-lime-colored Asics running sneakers, so it’s not like I looked like a complete slob or anything. Yet, I still felt underdressed and “below” all these people that were walking past me in their designer-looking clothing. I felt like I at least needed to be wearing a pair of salmon-colored shorts to fit in with these folks.


I went to basically every shoe store at the outlet mall. First, the Nike outlet, which was mobbed with people, and then the Asics outlet, the Converse outlet, the New Balance Outlet…


When I got to the Reebok outlet, I was hit hard with a flashback of an incident that happened to me at the Wrentham outlets, right outside the Reebok store about 20 years ago. One Saturday night, I think around the 2002 or 2003 area, I was at the outlets alone, shopping for sneakers (this was basically the only reason I went to the Wrentham outlets), and I found myself walking down the front walkway, adjacent the main parking lot, heading for the Reebok store.


Ahead of me, I saw a mall security cruiser pull up to the walkway. Two mall cops got out of the cruiser and confronted a man on the walkway holding an extremely large plastic shopping bag. They exchanged words for a moment, none of which were audible to me, but then the man suddenly dropped the bag on the walkway and started booking it away from the mall cops. Apparently, this guy was a shoplifter and he was on the run. Heading right towards me. Being pursued on foot by the mall police. But this dude was sprinting fast. They weren’t gaining on him.


I had about three seconds to decide what to do.

The scenario seemed familiar. I had seen it in movies and TV shows a zillion times. What would happen is some thief would run at the hero of the movie and the hero would trip the thief, the thief would fall to the ground, then be apprehended by the cops. It was that simple.


This was reality, though. And even though I had about three seconds to work this all out in my brain, I knew that this wouldn’t be as simple as the movies made it look.


I knew I was going to do SOMETHING. The thought of just letting this guy go didn’t even cross my mind and I don’t say that to make myself look like such a tough-guy hero. I simply don’t think I had enough time for fear and inhibitions to get the better of me. I saw a shoplifter running at me. Every movie and TV show I had ever seen told me that I needed to do something. So, yes, I was going to do something.


But the question was what I should do. I didn’t think I was slick or tough enough to trip the guy. I didn’t know any martial arts, either, so “sweeping the leg,” Cobra-Kai-style, was pretty much out of the question as well.


Nope, the only thing I could think of (again, in about three seconds time) was to get right into the shoplifter’s path and try to bodycheck him. 


And this is exactly what I did.


I got in front of the shoplifter and, for a split second, I could see a look in the man’s face, one that basically said, “Oh, you’re trying to stop me, are you? That’s what you think?” His eyes widened into an “it’s on” kind of look.


I braced myself for impact. And, boy, what an impact it was.


Keep in mind that this guy was a solid build, maybe weighing around 180-220 pounds while I was rather thin, weighing in at about 130-140 pounds at that point in my life (I was about 20 years old). Also, he was running at a full sprint. As for me? I was completely solitary, standing my ground with my arms out in front of me in almost a cross bones formation. I certainly didn’t have enough time to think about physics, not that I knew all that much about physics then anyway (I still don’t). My brain didn’t work out what would happen when this dude who was much bigger than me, running at full speed, would run right into me, the thin scrawny 130-pounder, standing absolutely still with no velocity behind me whatsoever.


Well, here is what happened:


The guy nailed me. And I went fucking flying. Backwards. I landed right on my ass and literally did about three backwards somersaults on the walkway there.


As for the shoplifter, he kept running, turned a corner and disappeared. The mall cops kept pursuing him. They ran right past me, said nothing and disappeared around the corner as well.


Despite getting nailed and taking such a tumble, it was a miracle (especially in retrospect) that I hadn’t been injured. I mean, that situation could have ended up so much worse, for both me and even the shoplifter. He could have nailed me, I could have hit my head on the pavement and I suppose I could have even died. Then, the shoplifter wouldn’t just be a small-time shoplifter anymore. He would be a murderer, not in the first degree of course, but he would have been a murderer and probably would have ended up serving some hard time. That is, unless, his lawyers could convince a jury that it was all my fault for getting in front of the shoplifter and it was actually ME who was doing the assaulting and the shoplifter was simply body-checking me in self-defense. I’m not sure if a jury would go for that back then in the early-2000’s, but these days it may be different because stopping shoplifters in this day and age is largely frowned upon. Shoplifting in many cities is basically only a measly misdemeanor as long as whatever you’re stealing is under a thousand dollars or technically it must be under $950.[i] You’re supposed to keep your distance and let them steal whatever they want and if you do anything to stop them, especially if you use any kind of force, YOU could easily end up becoming the bad guy doing something wrong.


Anyway, yes, other than maybe some bruising, I wasn’t injured in any significant way, at least not that I was aware of. I got up from the sidewalk, somewhat in a daze. I heard one bystander ask me if I was ok and I said “yes” and then proceeded to walk into the Reebok outlet. That’s right, there was nothing more to what happened. The cops didn’t question me or anything. The whole incident was over pretty much as soon as it started. Other than that one bystander asking me if I was all right, it was almost as though the whole incident never even occurred.


As for the shoplifter? Well, when I used to tell the story to people, I would say that, despite my attempt to stop the shoplifter being pretty much unsuccessful, I did SLOOOOW the shoplifter down and the mall police were able to catch up to and apprehend him after turning the corner.


However, I can’t say for sure that this actually happened. The truth is that I have no idea whether the shoplifter was ever apprehended. I assume that he probably was, but I never followed up on the incident. Again, I just moved right along like nothing had even happened, partially because I was so shocked and stunned due to everything happening so fast.


Now, if this same incident occurred today, a couple things would have happened differently. First of all, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten injured by such a hit. My body is not as young and elastic as it used to be. It has been ravaged by a bad case of Lyme disease and it doesn’t take much for me to get an injury. If I was, indeed, injured (and, again, I’m pretty sure I would be injured) I would likely be kind of pissed off about it and I would possibly pursue pressing charges, even though in this day and age maybe it was my fault for trying to stop the guy to begin with.


Also, if it happened today, I would probably try to get surveillance footage of the incident. In fact, I regret not doing this back in 2002/2003 when the incident occurred. Surveillance cameras weren’t as prevalent at the time, but the incident occurred in the very front part of the Wrentham outlets, so there must have been some surveillance footage of the incident. I would have been interested in seeing the footage, mainly to prove to myself that the incident actually happened the way I remembered it happening and also to confirm that I got hit as hard as I remembered getting hit.


Would I do it all over again? I mean, would I again try to stop the shoplifter today? Well, like I said before, the law is a lot more uncertain these days. You try and stop a shoplifter in the year 2023 and it seems like you can easily turn into the perpetrator. All store employees are trained to NOT confront shoplifters and civilians are basically told the same. If you do try and stop a thief and the thief gets hurt, you could be held liable for the injuries and you could even maybe be charged with assault or worse. Seriously, Google the question, “Should I stop a shoplifter?” and most of the articles that pop up will tell you it’s not worth the risk to your own safety, of course, but also not worth the risk of liability. Why? Because the force you use could easily be deemed too excessive. Even if it’s not your intention to injure the shoplifter, it could easily happen in your attempt to stop them and then, boom, suddenly the force you used, however minimal, could be seen as “excessive.”


That all being said, I think I would have to still do something. For my dignity’s sake. Because, honestly, if I hadn’t done anything way back in 2002/2003 and I had simply let the guy run past me…well, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself. I think it would have haunted me, likely to this day, if I had done nothing. I would have felt like a total coward. So I’m glad I did something, even though that something kind of made me look ridiculous in the long run, going flying 10 feet or so, falling on my ass, doing backwards somersaults on the pavement etc. What I did was messy, certainly not slick like anything you see in the movies, and I’m not even sure I slowed the guy down and/or helped the mall cops in their apprehension of the shoplifter, but at least I did SOMETHING.


Sometimes I wonder if surveillance footage of the incident still exists. I wonder if the mall cops used it as evidence in their prosecution of the shoplifter. Maybe they always wondered who the mystery man was who tried to stop the shoplifter, got body-checked and went flying onto his coccyx. Maybe they wanted to give me a big award or something. Maybe they wanted to give me a free shopping spree at the Wrentham outlets where I could buy all the sneakers I wanted. Maybe they wanted to give me the keys to the city or…well…the town of Wrentham. Maybe they wanted to make me Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” Who knows, maybe even the President of the United States would have wanted to meet me.


Or maybe the incident fizzled out as quickly as it fizzled in. No charges were pressed. They let the guy go. That is, if they even caught the guy to begin with.


I also wonder where that shoplifter is today. In the slammer for something else? Or did he change his ways? Did he feel bad about body checking me? Who knows, maybe he felt so bad about hitting me that he swore to never do crimes ever again and subsequently went on the straight and narrow. Maybe that was my purpose. Maybe I was placed there at that time to wake the guy up. Stealing is one thing, but hurting people? That wasn’t the man he was and he felt terrible about everything. And now, who knows, maybe he found Jesus and became a priest. All because of me.


In other words, it wasn’t my purpose to stop him that night. It was my purpose to change his life around.


Wishful thinking? Maybe. It’s probably more likely that the shoplifter is still out there in the world somewhere being a total asshole and general menace to society.



MATT BURNS is the author of several novels, including Weird MonsterSupermarket Zombies! and Johnny Cruise. He’s also written numerous memoirs, including GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird FilmsMY RAGING CASE OF BEASTIE FEVERJUNGLE F’NG FEVER: MY 30-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR W/ GUNS N’ ROSES and I TURNED INTO A MISFIT! Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.



Other trending articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:


A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall (about the death of the shopping mall age)


The Strange, Surreal Moment of Being Called a DILF Inside a Panera Bread Restaurant on a Wednesday Afternoon

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Weird Times en la Weirdioteca

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Charlie (a story about Burns’ recurring nightmares featuring Charlie Chaplin)

Some Wicked Good Times: A Love Letter to Newbury Comics

Video Store Memories

I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)

Skateboarding in the 1990s

Revisiting the Blair Witch Project


WAAF Goes Off the Air

PROXOS IN THE PLEX: A Goldeneye 007 N64 Retrospective


100 DAYS of ZELDA: Revisiting Ocarina of Time


I USED TO BE A GAMER: The 8-bit Nintendo Years


RIP PowerBook G3

Getting Your Screenplay Done


Making Your Good Writing Great


Writing the Trilogy


Writing the Sequel

No-No, Learn to Love the Rejection: Some Sage Advice for Writers in Search of an Agent or Publisher


The Story Behind Supermarket Zombies!

The Story Behind The Woman and the Dragon


[i] Ohanian, Lee. “Why Shoplifting is Now De Facto Legal In California.” Hoover Institution, 3 August 2021,

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