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Ben Woods is 20 years old. He lives just outside of Highland. During his senior year at Triad High School, he worked at a movie theater in Granite City. He worked the concession stand and did some janitorial work. He kept that job after he graduated. It wasn’t a great job, but it was something.

In April 2012, nearly a year after he graduated, he was hired at the Walmart in Highland. He worked in the deli department. He made $9.55 an hour and he generally worked about 35 hours a week. He lived at home with his parents and his sister.

After a few months, he put in for a transfer to the automotive department. His transfer was approved, and he went to the Tire and Lube Express section. He changed oil, replaced burned-out bulbs in headlights and did some basic tire work. When he became eligible for a raise, he got one. He was bounced up to $9.95 an hour.

In short, things seemed to be going fine. He liked his job. He had never been involved in any disciplinary procedures — no verbal cautions, no warnings, nothing. He told me the only complaint he could remember had to do with cheerfulness. Back when he was working in deli, a store manager told him he did not appear to be happy to be there.

But if he didn’t smile a lot, he could hardly be called an unhappy employee. A year or so after he was hired, his mom was hired. She was, and is, a cashier. His sister was also hired. She was placed in the deli department, the very place he had started.

A Walmart family. Then came Oct. 29.

Ben was nearing the end of his shift when a manager came into his section. It was the same manager who had complained about his alleged lack of good cheer. She asked Ben to come with her. She led him to the rear of the store, an employees-only area. By chance, his mother was back there, punching in on the time clock. She watched the manager lead Ben into a small room.

“It did not look good,” Rose Woods said.

Two men were sitting at a table in the room into which Ben was led. They told Ben to sit down. One of the men launched into a spiel about stealing. It’s a betrayal of the company, he said. It’s a betrayal of the associates, he said.

Ben told me his heart was racing, and he figured that they were going to ask him about one of his colleagues. If so, he’d be no help. He had heard nothing about thefts.

Then one of the men said, We know about the monster.

Ben said his heart was still racing. Who was the monster?

It turns out the monster was not a person. It was a thing.

Approximately two weeks earlier, Ben had taken a quick break. There is a small refrigerator in the waiting room of the Tire and Lube department. Customers can grab a soft drink while they wait for their car to be serviced. You take your drink out of the refrigerator. You pay the cashier.

On this particular day, Ben grabbed a low-carb energy drink — a Monster. It costs $1.78. Ben told me he swiped his debit card, but his card is worn, and sometimes it doesn’t swipe. He said he tried it again. It still didn’t work. He said the cashier said, “We’ll get it later.” She then buzzed him back into the automotive work area.

Apparently, a manager had witnessed the act.

Ben said he told his two interrogators that he thought the cashier had paid for it later. One of the men was studying Ben’s employee record. “I see you worked in deli. What did you steal there?”

Soon two police officers from the Highland Police Department arrived. They handcuffed Ben and took him to the station. His mother had hung around in the back area to see what was going to happen. She saw the officers lead her son out of the building.

“I thought, ‘My God! What is happening?’” she said.

Both Ben and his mother, who later picked him up at the police station, said the officers were nice.

But he had lost his job. The cashier in Tire and Lube was also terminated.

I was unable to find her. I went to the Walmart last week and tried to speak with the manager who had led Ben to the back. She said she couldn’t talk with me. She gave me the number for Walmart corporate media relations. A woman in that department told me she would look into the situation and then give me an official comment.

I called the Highland Police Department. Chief Terry Bell said records show that two individuals from Walmart were brought in that day, but no charges were filed.

On Thursday afternoon, the woman from media relations called. “We have offered Ben his job back,” she said. “We will be happy to have him back.” I asked about the cashier. There were other issues involved with her, she said.

Ben said he was very happy to return to work.

Bill McClellan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.