WOODBURY, Minn. — She knew it was wrong when she did it, but she was too desperate to care.
Sarah Lindgren, 61, of Oakdale, was scanning groceries in a self-checkout lane at Walmart with her teen daughter a couple of days before Thanksgiving. There was more in her cart than there was money in her account, but she bagged up the discounted meat anyway and headed toward the door in her motorized wheelchair.
“At that point, I was done,” she said. “I was just tired and drained. I didn’t care anymore.”
Lindgren’s husband died unexpectedly a few years ago, leaving her to care for her disabled daughter, her 18-year-old twins, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Money was tight and food had been scarce.
“It had been a while since we’d had a good meal,” she said. “I was determined to give them a good meal no matter what it cost me.”
Lindgren didn’t want to ask for help. She did not want to be on any government benefits if she didn’t have to be.
“For me, I’ve always been able to maintain and help my family, but sometimes you just can’t,” she said. “You just don’t know how to ask for help.”
As she moved toward the exit, an employee stopped her and asked her to come to a private room to wait for the police.
Lindgren was so worn out, she didn’t care if she went to jail. But when her daughter, who has autism, started crying, Lindgren found her resolve.
“At that point, it just hit me that I can’t give up,” she said. “If I get taken away, what’s going to happen to her? It was a rude awakening. I had to keep going.”
Officer steps in
Woodbury police officer Bryan Wagner came to the room. He listened to her story but wasn’t sure he believed it.
“As a police officer, I am lied to often and tend to become skeptical of stories given by people who are potentially being arrested,” he said. “I released her from Walmart with a citation for theft. She was remorseful, and, from my experience, it was likely her first time stealing.”
Wagner began to wonder if she was telling the truth, so he did some digging.
“After going through research, I discovered that she was being completely honest with me, had no criminal history, no negative police contacts and was caring for many children,” he said.
He could have left it there, but he decided the least he could do was take her some information on where to get help. He stopped by the Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf in Oakdale.
“I was expecting pamphlets and education,” he said. “Staff and volunteers wanted to act immediately. They allowed me to shop for her and helped me the entire time, filling my entire front seat, back seat and trunk of my squad car with food for the woman’s family, along with resources.”
When Lindgren saw the squad car pull up in front of her house, she was afraid. She thought Wagner was coming to arrest her and asked him to give her time to find someone to care for her children and grandchildren.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just trust me,’ ” she said. “I have a hard time trusting people. They are not always what they seem to be.”
When she saw that he was not going to arrest her, but rather had brought groceries for her family, she was shocked. She shook her head and said no thanks.
“I said, no, I don’t deserve that,” she said. “I can’t accept it.”
Once Wagner convinced her to let him help, she was overcome with emotion.
“She cried and hugged me for about two straight minutes,” Wagner said. “At this time some of her children were coming home from school and they all helped unload my car.”
As an added bonus, Wagner voided her citation for theft because he said it was not in her character to steal.
“He was like a guardian angel to me,” she said. “I’ve never seen an officer go out of his way the way he did. He’s my hero.”
Wagner said she swallowed her pride and went back to the food shelf to shop for Christmas dinner. She wants others to know that they don’t have to struggle alone.
“It has opened my eyes,” she said. “There are people out there that are willing to help if you ask.”