Greg Bluestein, Jennifer Brett, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A witness to a heated grocery store encounter between state Rep. Erica Thomas and a man she accused of uttering racist comments told authorities she didn’t hear him make those remarks, according to a Cobb County police report.
A Publix employee told a Cobb County officer that she witnessed part of the conversation and heard Thomas “continuously tell Eric Sparkes to ‘Go back where you came from!’” but did not hear Sparkes utter those words to Thomas.
In a tearful video, Thomas accused Sparkes of using that phrase, which echoes a tweet by President Donald Trump that sparked a national uproar. Her account quickly went viral and triggered a wave of support and backlash.
Sparkes admitted to calling the Democrat an expletive during the run-in, saying he was upset she was in an express lane in the grocery store with too many items, but he said he didn’t tell her to “go back” to where she came from.
Thomas’ attorney, Gerald Griggs, said the officer’s report shows the case needs additional investigation because the employee, and another witness who also said he didn’t hear Sparkes use the phrase, “didn’t hear the initial argument.” He said he’s interviewed three other customers who heard the exchange.
A Publix surveillance video of the incident released Wednesday showed a confrontation that lasted roughly 45 seconds.
It did not include audio, so it provided no conclusive evidence of what was said, but it showed Sparkes walk up to Thomas as she was checking out in the express lane and apparently point to the sign.
He quickly retreated as Thomas responded and took a step in his direction. She then followed him a few more steps as he walked away, pointing a finger at him.
The officer who reviewed the tape wrote that Sparkes “did not appear to be irate” or to have approached her with “clenched fists,” as Thomas asserted to the officer. He also wrote that Thomas’ 9-year-old daughter was seen “smiling shortly after.”
Cobb authorities said Tuesday that they don’t intend to file criminal charges in the case after what the Police Department said was a “thorough” investigation into the confrontation.
The back-and-forth has led to new scrutiny that mirrors the nation’s political divide. Some liberals declared the run-in a heartbreaking side effect of Trump’s rhetoric. And some conservatives cast Thomas as a version of Jussie Smollett, the Chicago actor accused of concocting a racist attack to advance his career.
The dispute started Friday evening when Thomas, a vice chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus, posted a Facebook video accusing Sparkes of berating her for flouting the 10-or-fewer items rule at a Mableton Publix.
“This white man comes up to me and says, ‘You lazy son of (expletive). You need to go back where you came from,’” she said in the video, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Sir, you don’t even know me. I’m not lazy. I’m nine months pregnant.”
The video caught the attention of liberal activists who amplified her message that “racism and hate is getting out of control.” Soon, it had tallied millions of views and sparked a media frenzy of competing headlines and hashtags.
A day later, Thomas’ story came under scrutiny when she arrived at the Publix to speak with television reporters — and Sparkes arrived too, eager to respond. He said he called her a “selfish little (expletive)” when he noticed she was skirting the express lane’s rules.
“I did say that. That’s all I said after that, and I walked out of Publix. Her words stating on Twitter, and her video, stating I told her she needs to go back where she came from are untrue,” said Sparkes, who said he was a Democrat of Cuban descent.
‘Speaks for itself’
The video did little to settle the question of what happened, but witness testimony offered new details.
In the report, the Publix employee told police that after Sparkes accosted Thomas he began to leave but “Ms. Thomas kept ‘running her mouth’ as she approached him.” Sparkes, she said, responded by repeatedly calling Thomas “ignorant.”
The employee told the officer that she did not hear either of them use profanity.
Another Publix staffer, Derrick Tompkins, told police he heard Sparkes call Thomas an expletive. Tompkins told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he didn’t hear Sparkes tell her to “go back” to where she came from.
“I’m not going to say that wasn’t said, but I don’t remember hearing it,” Tompkins said in an interview. “I’m going to leave it at that.”
Thomas held a press conference Monday where she maintained Sparkes used hateful language that echoed Trump’s recent tweets, and she said remarks she made to Channel 2 Action News where she appeared to backtrack were taken out of context.
In that Saturday interview, she told the TV station: “I don’t want to say he said, ‘Go back to your country,’ or ‘Go back to where you came from.’ But he was making those types of references is what I remember.”
Griggs also has repeatedly said Thomas had witnesses to back up her account and shared a social media message from one customer who said she watched the altercation as an example of the feedback he’s received.
“Representative Thomas wants the world to know that she’s standing up for the rights of women who have been victimized,” Griggs said.
In a statement on Tuesday, Sparkes said he wasn’t surprised that Cobb authorities decided not to file charges and added Wednesday that the police report “speaks for itself.” He also blasted media coverage of the incident.
“Everyone that knows me knows that I am anti-hate, anti-bigot and anti-racism,” he said, adding: “Sadly, too much of media isn’t fact-checking items or they are just taking the word of a politician when they do a live Facebook or a Twitter post.”
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