Calcutta Walmart cleared for ‘bomb;’ suspect held

CALCUTTA – The local Walmart was evacuated for three hours Tuesday after a suspicious electronic device was found inside, and a man claiming to be homeless has been charged with inducing panic by St. Clair Township Police.

John S. Hester, 53, was charged last night when he was apprehended by township police officers in East Liverpool after reportedly returning to the Dresden Avenue store and stealing a television several hours after the evacuation.

Chief Don Hyatt said that, in addition to the fourth-degree felony, Hester is facing other charges involving other incidents at Walmart, including the television theft from last night.

A second man was also charged with theft in relation to the television allegedly taken last night, but Hyatt declined to identify him at this point, stressing that the man was not charged in connection with the bomb incident.

The men were apprehended about 7:30 p.m. after police were called by Walmart employees who said the man police considered a person of interest in the earlier incident had just stolen a 50-inch television and fled.

Township officers responded immediately and began a pursuit of a Jeep Cherokee, also alerting East Liverpool and Wellsville police departments.

The vehicle was intercepted at the off ramp from state Route 11 near Westgate, where the driver, later identified as Hester, pulled over and was taken into custody by township Patrolman Ryan Stovall and K-9 Officer Chris Davis.

“We believe the driver of the vehicle has some connection to the evacuation at Walmart. We don’t know (his passenger’s) connection, if any,” Hyatt said at the scene of the arrest.

After detectives questioned the two men, Hyatt reported just before 11 p.m. that the men had been charged and would be appearing in East Liverpool Municipal Court today. They are being held in the county jail.

The saga began Tuesday when police were called at 11:39 a.m. by Walmart officials after an employee found an unusual object in the electronics department.

Hyatt described the object as being wrapped in black electrical tape and silver duct tape with a black plastic top. It was also wrapped in a bandana and had a series of wires attached to between six and seven boxes of electronics that were on the shelves for sale.

Upon being alerted to the device, police called the fire department and sent word for the store to be evacuated, with Hyatt saying, “They did a great job. As we were pulling in, it was already 98 percent evacuated.”

Customers abandoned their shopping carts where they were as they left the store, and most drove off, but some die hard shoppers stayed in the parking lot the entire three hours the store was closed.

Employees huddled in groups along the far edge of the parking area as they waited for the all-clear sign.

Police called the Youngstown Bomb Squad which arrived at 1:30 p.m., receiving cheers and applause from the groups of employees before it headed to the rear of the store.

Bomb squad personnel defused the device and rendered it safe, according to Hyatt, who said there was no evidence of explosive materials in the device, and all components were collected to be sent for testing.

“Hopefully, there will be DNA on them,” Hyatt said, adding that, while the device was not explosive, “It was certainly made to look that way. I never saw that elaborate a hoax.”

A complete sweep of the store and its exterior garden area was conducted by police, firefighters from Calcutta, Glenmoor and Liverpool Township and even ambulance personnel from Tri-County and Lifeteam, as well as what appeared to be some Walmart management personnel.

Security video inside the store detected the person now believed to be Hester at the store before 8 a.m. on Monday and Hyatt said it is believed the suspicious device found Tuesday had been in the store since that time.

He declined comment on whether or not the man seen in the video was carrying a bag or anything in which the components could have been concealed.

Asked how someone could have accomplished such an elaborate set-up unnoticed by store personnel, Hyatt said the store is virtually empty that early in the morning and that the department where it was found is at the rear of the store.

“What this individual set out to accomplish, he did,” Hyatt said, referring to the disruption caused by the threat. He said last night that Hester gave no reason for why he rigged the electronics as he allegedly did.

Nothing else of interest was found in the search, and employees were allowed to return to work about 2:30 p.m., although they were briefed outside the front doors for a few minutes by police personnel and store management.

Before heading back to work, employees sent up a round of thanks to the emergency personnel who responded, but Hyatt commended employees as well.

“They have a great bunch of people in this store. It was orderly. It was an absolutely excellent response. When we enter into something like this, everyone is given a task and they carried it out flawlessly,” Hyatt said of store personnel and emergency personnel.

“Maybe it is nothing, and maybe you touch it and it’s a tragedy. We’re not going to take a chance,” Hyatt said of the quick response and thorough investigation by not only his officers but all the others involved.

Walmart spokesman Kayla Whaling agreed, saying, “Our focus is the safety of our customers and associates. We never hesitate to close if a threat is made.”

She said the company appreciated the quick response of the police and said, “We will continue to work with them. We take these things very seriously. Our stores are safe. We will rely on the police’s expertise and guidance.”