Blood-filled needles create anxiety in Sherbrooke
SHERBROOKE, QUE.—Patrick Beaudette’s nightmare happened mid-afternoon in the most unexpected of places: under the glaring fluorescent lights of the men’s section at his local Zellers department store.
Having found a pair of jeans his size, he scooped them up in his left hand to carry them to the fitting room. That’s when he felt a sharp pain in his palm at the base of the thumb. He looked at his hand and blood was trickling down.
He gave the jeans to his girlfriend, a nurse, who pulled a needle-fitted syringe out of the pocket. There appeared to be blood inside.
They looked at each other in bewilderment.
“Then was anger, rage,” Beaudette said of his immediate reaction.
Following the May 2 incident, Beaudette has lived a tight knot of anxiety and doubt, all the while his guts were churning and his head pounding from the anti-HIV medication he had to take.
The angst felt by victims is perhaps the most galling aspect of the ongoing needle mystery in this city of 200,000, about 150 kilometres east of Montreal.
Police revealed Wednesday that three more needle-syringes had been recovered, this time at a Sports Experts store in the same shopping mall as Zellers, the Carrefour de L’Estrie.
Since January, 23 needles have been found in seven different stores. Eight people have been injured so far.
Last weekend, three Zellers employees were pricked — ironically while checking for rogue needles in the retailers’ clothing.
Sherbrooke police have verified that the first three syringes found contained human blood, belonging to the same person. All the syringes have contained what appears to be blood.
On Wednesday the police announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. They have no leads.
The case has the creepy hallmarks of the poisoned Tylenol scare in the U.S. in the 1980s, or even parents’ warnings of razorblades in the Halloween candy.
“It’s been very difficult for the police,” acknowledged Sherbrooke Police Service spokesperson Const. René Dubreuil.
Dubreuil said surveillance videos have not helped because placing a needle in a pocket can be done very discreetly.
All the needles have been found in men’s or children’s pants or shorts. Never in women’s clothing.
“We’re advising prudence on the part of both employees and clients,” Dubreuil said.
The ongoing incidents have left retailers on edge.
At the Intersport store in the Carrefour de l’Estrie, there is now a daily check of clothing by glove-wearing staff, explained owner Jean-Claude Héroux.
The protocol follows the discovery of five needles in store clothing, after a customer — uninjured — discovered one in a pair of boys’ Bermuda shorts.
Clothes are also verified before and after a customer tries them on, Héroux said.
Staff at Sports Experts also found the latest needles during special checks of merchandise and called police.
“I hate the thought of staff having to do these checks because it puts them in danger too,” said Duncan Fulton, vice president of parent company FGL Sports, adding they’ve been given needle-resistant gloves.
“The whole thing is an off-putting situation for everyone. The quicker we find whoever is doing this the better.”
Beaudette is feeling better these days after police informed him a few days ago that the blood in the syringe that pricked him tested negative for HIV.
“I want to get on with my life,” he said, though he’ll have to submit to HIV tests for the next six months to be sure.
He thinks the perpetrator is doing it for kicks. “I think he’s doing it for the glory,” Beaudette said. “Every time we talk about it, more are found.”
He still feels bitterness toward Zellers, however. He said management took the situation too lightly — only closing off part of the men’s section after the incident. A Zellers spokesperson said management “assessed the situation and decided that was the appropriate action,” stressing that Zellers has increased security as a result and conducts a search of its merchandise on a daily basis.
In the men’s section now at Zellers, a large sign reads: “Smile, you’re on camera. Your safety is our concern.”