Two months after his arrest on shoplifting charges for smashing a “toy” lamp in Wal-Mart’s parking lot, Buddy Childress is a free man. On December 2, 2007, I narrated the story of Buddy Childress, a 72-year old termite control contractor from Des Arc, Arkansas, who entered a Wal-Mart Supercenter in neighboring Searcy in late November, grabbed a toy “lamp” off the shelf, took it out into the parking lot, and stomped it to pieces. This was hardly the modus operandi of a shoplifter. Buddy had seen on CNN that the “Dora Explorer Lamp” was on the 2007 “10 Worst Toys” list, compiled by a group called W.A.T.C.H. (World Against toys Causing Harm). The Dora Lamp, made in China, looks more like a plastic cartoon character than a lamp. According to W.A.T.C.H., “The packaging encourages children to ‘light-up your room with Dora!’ Incredibly, children are further instructed to ‘unplug the product when leaving the house, when retiring for the night, or if left unattended.’ The manufacturer’s proclamation that the Dora cartoon character is not a toy has little meaning to small children, who may be attracted to the figurine and thus be exposed to the potential electric hazard.” The consumer group says it lists toys “with the potential to cause childhood injuries, or even death.” “I felt I had to do something that would make a statement,” Buddy told me, “and focus attention on this extremely dangerous toy.” So he stomped on it. Before doing so, Buddy dialed 911 on his cell phone, and told the police officer who answered the phone where he was, what had happened in the toy department, and that he was going to destroiy the lamp in Wal-Mart’s parking lot. “I told him I was going to, and that I’d be waiting outside the store for the police to arrive. I expected to be arrested there, and taken to the police station.” Before the cops arrived, five or six Wal-Mart employees came out of the store and surrounded Buddy. They ordered him to accompany them back inside the store to an office in the back. “They put some papers in front of me and instructed me to sign them,” he recalls. “But I refused.” A Searcy policeman came in, and the Wal-Mart people said they were charging Buddy with shoplifting. While waiting for his court date, Buddy received a call from a woman who identified herself as Wal-Mart’s lead merchandiser for its Toy Division. She said she was calling just to let Buddy know that Wal-Mart had decided to “delete the Dora the Explorer lamp from its merchandise list for stores nationwide.” “She thanked me warmly for my concerns about the lamp,” Buddy says, “and for bringing them to Wal-Mart’s attention.” Buddy told a reporter from a local newspaper about his call from Wal-Mart. The reporter emailed a “corporate communications” staffer at Wal-Mart to verify Buddy’s story. Wal-Mart’s representative emailed the reporter back. “It sounds as if you have been slightly misinformed,” she wrote. “We have no plans at this time to sell the lamp again because it was a season item that was always based for temporary sell for seasonal demand, as many other items are often ordered during the fall. It is my understanding that our lead merchant for Toys did reach out to the customer as a courtesy to inform him that we would ‘no longer sell the item,’ (She did not say we would be ‘pulling it,’ that’s very different), as we hoped this would make him feel better due to his actions and concerns. There are currently no plans to reorder and sell what we have already sold through, for the reasons I mentioned.” The email concluded, “There have been no complaints on the item accept [sic] for the unfortunate incident in Searcy and its listing on a special interest group web site. It is not a toy, and not sold as a toy, but a lamp, which was approved by Underwriter Laboratories which tests home products.” On February 5th, Buddy drove to Searcy to resolve this ‘unfortunate incident” in court. Buddy, and his attorney, John Bell, who took the case pro bono because he said he had young children and shared Buddy’s concerns about the flood of dangerous toys on the market, entered to find a packed courtroom. “I recognized several Searcy Wal-Mart employees,” Buddy says. “Some of them were holding packaged Dora lamps, and I recognized the Wal-Mart manager with whom I’d pleaded to remove the lamp from the Toy Department shelves. The judge asked all the Wal-Mart employees except the manager to leave the courtroom.” “When I’d been sworn in and put on the stand,” Buddy continues, “I related the sequence of events which led to my taking the lamp from the store without paying for it and publicly destroying it on the sidewalk outside. When asked why I did it, I said it was the only thing I could think of which might focus public attention on the dangers the lamp posed to young children who would see it as a toy and want to handle it.” After the store manager related to the court what had happened that day at Wal-Mart, John Bell cross-examined him. Attorney Bell asked whether Buddy’s demeanor that night had been threatening or hostile. The manager replied that it had not. Bell then asked him to turn the lamp’s packaging upside down and read aloud the small-print warning on the bottom: The manager seemed reluctant as he read, “Warning: This is an electric lamp — not a toy! To avoid risk of fire, burns, personal injury and electric shock, it should not be played with or placed where small children can reach it.” Bell then asked in which of Wal-Mart’s departments the item had been displayed and offered for sale. Following a long pause, the manager answered truthfully, “In the toy department.” Buddy was let off without a fine, and without any jail time.
The way Buddy explains it, “there was some provision of suspension for a year, during which I have to behave myself.” That probably won’t be too hard for Buddy Childress. He’s now a free man, and back in the comfort of his home in Des Arc. “But I can tell you there are more than a dozen Dora the Explorer lamps sitting around our den, smiling at me,” Buddy says. “Between the time I was arrested and the court date, my wife Ann and I looked at the toy shelves in several Central Arkansas Wal-Mart stores. In almost every one, we found the item in question on the Toy Department shelves. When we saw one or more, we bought them. It may sound foolish, but in each case we knew the lamps we bought meant fewer that could fall into the hands of little children.” I asked Buddy if this “unfortunate incident” with Wal-Mart had affected his shopping habits. “The answer is we no longer shop at Wal-Mart. This makes it a little difficult sometimes, since the nearby presence of Wal-Mart (about 35 minutes from our little town) has shut down virtually all the small, privately owned businesses which used to occupy the storefronts of our little town. Buddy took Dora Explorer out of Wal-Mart for two simple reasons: “First, and most importantly, I hope it will act as a deterrent to shoppers everywhere this story appears, to not buy this item from Wal-Mart, or any other retailer. You have to wonder how many other items on store shelves fall into this category? Secondly, I want to tell people who know me exactly what I did and why I did it. I hope I can do some damage-control regarding my business and my reputation. It isn’t my nature to be a ‘protestor.'” “If I had it to do over,” Buddy sighs, “I would still act to call attention to the Dora the Explorer lamp by taking it out and publicly destroying it. I couldn’t in good conscience walk away without trying to do something.”