Violent Episode in Coffee Shop Raises Awareness of Workplace Violence

Jan. 10, 2005
Brutal instance of workplace violence in Maine is sobering to small hospitality operations

BANGOR, Maine (AP) -- The death of a coffee shop employee in Caribou will likely be used by businesses and state agencies to examine whether there were any warning signs and whether the victim's death could have been prevented.

Police have arrested a co-worker and charged him in the death of Erin Sperrey. If her assailant is convicted, Sperrey would become the first person to be murdered by a co-worker in Maine in at least 12 years.

Compared to other states, Maine has few on-the-job homicides. Between 1992 and this week, six people had been killed as a result of assaults or violent acts while at work. Nationally, 560 people were killed just last year.

Those deaths were at the hands of customers or individuals who knew the victims, such as a spouse in situations where domestic violence spilled into the workplace.

But a death caused by a co-worker is an anomaly.

"In Maine, you're far more likely to be killed by someone who loves you or loved you than by any other cause," said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police.

Sperrey, a 20-year-old supervisor at Tim Hortons coffee shop in Caribou, was beaten and kicked to death last Sunday, allegedly by a recent hire who had a crush on his supervisor.

Christopher Shumway, a 19-year-old who grew up in Athol, Mass., was charged with murder two days later and is being held without bail at Aroostook County Jail.

Sperrey's mother, Johna Lovely, said Shumway asked her daughter several times to go out with him on dates. Sperrey, who had a boyfriend, was too polite to tell Shumway no but instead made up excuses about why she couldn't go out with him, Lovely said.

It's not known whether store management knew of the situation before they were scheduled to work together or whether Shumway's actions rose to the level of sexual harassment.

Nick Javor, vice president of corporate affairs for Tim Hortons in Toronto, and Troy Chamberlain, the owner of the Caribou franchise, have declined to publicly comment on Shumway's personnel history.

Javor, who says the chain has a zero tolerance policy for workplace violence, believes Shumway may have "snapped." "It's just me talking, but when somebody snaps, how do you pick that up?" he said.

In Maine, approximately 210 assaults occurred in workplaces in both 2002 and 2003, according to the labor department. Many of them were in health care facilities.

"It's the responsibility of every employer to provide a strong, safe and secure worker environment," said Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood. "It's up to the employer to do this not only for the employee but for the customer it serves."

Too often, he said, businesses seek advice after a violent situation has occurred, such as a robbery, assault or a fight between two workers. "Unfortunately it's almost always a reactive approach," Chitwood said.

Sperrey's mother knows what she wants businesses to do to prevent workplace violence. She wants more security devices including panic buttons -- silent alarms that alert police departments when someone is in danger.

"Had there been a panic button, Erin would have been able to push it," Lovely said. "The first instance when he pushed her, she could have pressed the panic button to alert the police."

Lovely is establishing a fund in her daughter's memory to purchase security devices for businesses that employ younger workers. She also wants the Legislature to make it mandatory for businesses to have security equipment in place to protect employees.

Tim Hortons in Caribou did not have security cameras or a panic button alarm that Sperrey could have pushed to alert police, according to Caribou police.

Loveley said she hopes her daughter's death is the last one to occur at a workplace. "The first thing I said was I do not want this to happen again," Lovely said. "I do not ever, ever want to see someone else feel like I do right now."