Indiana regulators scrutinize Village Pantry convenience store chain

INDIANAPOLIS — A convenience-store chain that reached a settlement with state regulators earlier this year over workplace safety concerns is facing renewed scrutiny following a recent shooting at one of its Indianapolis stores in which a clerk was critically wounded.

The Oct. 21 shooting came four months after Village Pantry settled allegations that it had failed to create and maintain "reasonably safe" working conditions at another Indianapolis store, where a clerk was shot and killed during a robbery two years ago.

The Indianapolis Business Journal reported Saturday that the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation following the November 2009 fatal shooting of a 62-year-old clerk at that second store.

Investigators found that the store's employees had been involved in more than 32 robberies involving force since 2000.

An IOSHA settlement in that case keeps all 134 Village Pantry-owned convenience stores in Indiana under state scrutiny through June 2014.

As part of that settlement — which reduced Village Pantry's fine from a proposed $67,500 to $7,000 — the North Carolina-based chain "did come forward with a very extensive commitment to change processes and procedures" at all of its Indiana stores, said Robert Dittmer, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Labor, which administers the IOSHA program.

While the October shooting won't trigger a new probe, Dittmer said IOSHA is monitoring the chain under the terms of the settlement and will look into what occurred and whether Village Pantry should have taken additional preventive actions.

As part of its settlement, Village Pantry had included the store where the October occurred among four demonstration sites for new equipment and processes it plans to roll out statewide.

Dittmer said Village Pantry had begun to make changes at that store.

But the family of 45-year-old Marcella Birnell, the clerk who was shot in the head and remains hospitalized in critical condition, said they were unaware of any new steps to protect workers.

"I know for a fact Marcy had asked several times after being robbed — after being punched to the floor unconscious, after being shot in the chest with a BB gun — for additional security," Perry Tole, her brother-in-law, said. "But they refused. They told her no."

Police have arrested a 15-year-old Indianapolis high school student in her shooting.

Tole said he and his family are championing passage of state legislation that would mandate basic safety standards for convenience stores, including bulletproof safe zones and a prohibition against clerks working alone.

He has begun contacting lawmakers to rally support, including Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who represents the district where the shooting occurred.

"I'm very concerned about violent crime, and I'm very concerned about the risks ordinary citizens take in working long hours at convenience stores," DeLaney said.

But he added, "It's very complex, because we don't want to overburden stores."

Village Pantry, founded in the 1960s by Marsh Supermarkets, now is part of Wilmington, N.C.-based VPS Convenience Store Group.

Stanton Public Relations in New York City, which represents VPS, would not make executives available for an interview on Birnell's shooting. But VPS said in a written statement: "We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident, and are providing Marcy with strong support so she can continue to heal."

VPS said it is "well ahead of schedule" in implementing a comprehensive safety plan it developed in cooperation with IOSHA, and is considering other measures.

The company said it's providing employees with mandatory monthly and quarterly safety education and is also installing advanced digital video surveillance equipment, safety barrier doors at high-risk locations, among other steps.


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