Case Closed

Wal-Mart finds the ultimate bargain: beating a family's $20 million verdict

"I've developed a real good nose," Sharp says. "And when I asked to see this videotape and everybody started doing this dance, the 'nose detector' went off."

That October, the Williamson County assistant district attorney announced she was dropping Aguilera's case. Her memo noted there was nothing to place Aguilera at the scene except Cruickshank's words.

Prosecutors also had to drop charges on another woman Cruickshank had identified. But detective Hamby's investigation paid off with felony organized-crime convictions against nine defendants, including Aguilera's brother.

Ignacio Aguilera Jr. (center, with his nephew and father) had to stop his mother from killing herself.
Daniel Kramer
Ignacio Aguilera Jr. (center, with his nephew and father) had to stop his mother from killing herself.

Aguilera was indicted in Harris County as well, but prosecutors there also dismissed charges against her.

Hamby still contends that she was part of the ring. He blames Sharp for dragging out the case with repeated resets as the prosecution witnesses, low-paid store clerks, gradually found other jobs.

"It's not a career for them," he says. "They moved on, and we lost our witnesses."

In 1995, Sharp filed suit against Wal-Mart and Cruickshank on Aguilera's behalf, alleging malicious prosecution, negligent hiring and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He sued in Starr County of South Texas, a heavily Hispanic area. (State law at the time permitted such a venue because Wal-Mart had a store there.)

In the six years leading up to trial, Aguilera died of complications from her chronic condition. Her husband, Ignacio, was so badly injured in a fall at his construction job that he's been on worker's compensation ever since. Wal-Mart fired Cruickshank for kiting checks, then later rehired him.

Jurors heard five days of testimony, then deliberated for just one hour before returning their verdict: Aguilera's family would get $13 million. Since it had taken five years to get to trial, the judge tacked on $7 million in interest.

"I was flabbergasted," says Drabek, Wal-Mart's attorney, "just completely blown out of my socks."

Sharp says he had offered to settle for $1 million when he filed the suit. "They'd scoffed at that," he says.

Cruickshank's credibility had crumbled. In an earlier deposition, he'd claimed to be a high school graduate and Vietnam War veteran who had received a Purple Heart as well as a special presidential award for "outstanding actions in the field." He told Sharp he couldn't elaborate on his honors. "Unless the president says so, I won't tell anybody."

In trial, Cruickshank admitted that he'd never graduated high school, never gotten any service awards or even been to Vietnam. It wasn't hard to connect the dots: If he'd lied about his résumé, why wouldn't he also lie to impress his superiors and help bust a major shoplifting ring?

For his efforts, Wal-Mart had given Cruickshank a 25-cent hourly raise.

The euphoria of the verdict dissipated slowly, in a series of obstacles and reversals that made it abundantly clear: Winning $20 million doesn't mean getting $20 million.

First, Sharp conceded that the jury erred in its calculations by twice awarding Aguilera money for the same damages; $13 million should really be $6.5 million, he admitted.

Then, in June 2003, the San Antonio-based court of appeals issued a 2-1 decision that reversed the jury's decision. Justices found insufficient evidence to support the verdict. The company owed the Aguileras nothing.

The appellate opinion didn't claim Aguilera was guilty, only that Cruickshank had honestly believed she was. "The question is not what the facts were, but what the defendant honestly and reasonably believed the facts to be," Justice Karen Angelini wrote.

Sharp appealed that decision to the Texas Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case this spring. His motion asking them to reconsider attracted support from unlikely quarters: the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which represents 14,000 officers across the state.

The association argued that private security guards like Cruickshank must be held to the same standards as law enforcement officers.

"One does not check one's constitutional rights at the door of private commercial enterprise; there must be REAL probable cause to detain until the police arrive; and there must be REAL probable cause to prosecute thereafter," the organization argued.

But the court would have none of it. On July 16, it rejected Sharp's motion.

And that, finally, was the end.

The family would get nothing.

Sitting on the same love seat that Irene Aguilera was once bound to by house arrest, Ignacio Aguilera Jr. hardly seems to understand. "We didn't really go for the money," he explains. "We did it because Wal-Mart was trying to accuse my mother of things she didn't do. Just to clear my mom's name up. And if there's any more to do, I'll show up again."

Sharp carefully explains to him that the Supreme Court was the last hope. "We've gone to the end of the trail. We can't do any more. You cannot look for the courts to protect you."

"I know that," Ignacio Jr. says. "You know I know that."

With his son translating, Ignacio Sr. says in Spanish that he misses his wife, every day. But he's not angry at Wal-Mart.

"What's the point of getting mad?" he says. Then Junior adds his own take: "They're just doing their job. I still shop at Wal-Mart. I don't have no grudge or anything. I've even filled out an application to work there."

Sharp shakes his head. He won't shop at Wal-Mart, he admits later, and he has a hard time understanding the family's forgiveness.

He spent $180,000 of his own money on the case, he says. And he never got paid a penny.

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