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Widow of war hero accused of taking money, gift cards from Kmart

Birgit Smith was married to Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, who died outside Baghdad.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Birgit Smith was married to Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, who died outside Baghdad.

HOLIDAY — Her husband's name means something around here.

It's memorialized on middle schools in Holiday and Tampa. It's been lauded by a U.S. president. It's on a list of recipients of the Medal of Honor, an award seldom bestowed and only for the most valorous acts in the armed services.

Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith.

His widow, Birgit Smith, fears her arrest last week may tarnish that good name.

Smith was accused of taking money and gift cards from the New Port Richey Kmart where she worked. Police charged her Wednesday with scheming to defraud. She spent the night in jail until she came up with $1,000 to post bail.

Smith, 46, said she was shocked when officers showed up. She said she was never trying to steal from her employer.

She said she processed $153.73 in refunds for herself — even though doing so is against store policy — because no other employees were around to help. Kmart officials believe she never returned the goods. Smith said the merchandise is back on the shelves.

The four gift cards, worth a total of $20, were in the store's lost-and-found bin, destined for the trash, she said. So she took the cards and spent them on a lottery ticket.

She admits she violated store policies. Firing her should be enough, she said. Arresting her was too harsh, she said.

A spokesman for Sears Holdings, which owns Kmart, wrote the following:

"Our process is to provide information to the local authorities, who decide whether or not to prosecute based on the evidence."

Smith said walking out of the store escorted by a deputy was humiliating.

"I do get a pension from my husband," she said. "I'm not poor."

"This is like a nightmare," she added.

Smith lost her husband nearly a decade ago, when his troop was ambushed by 100 Iraqi soldiers outside the Saddam International Airport in Baghdad.

He climbed onto an armored vehicle and used a machine gun to hold off the Iraqi soldiers while his men withdrew. He died in the fight.

His story was chronicled in the Tampa Bay Times. Two years after Smith's death, President George W. Bush presented the family with the Medal of Honor. Smith became the first serviceman in the Iraq war to receive the award.

Because of her husband's service and his award, people recognized Smith at Kmart and stopped to chat, she said. She doesn't want them to associate any part of him with her arrest.

"It's killing me," she said. "What I got accused of, that should be on me. It's not fair to my children, and it's not fair to Paul's name."

While she talked, she lifted a hand to dry her eyes, showing her glistening engagement ring. Further up her arm, her husband's name appears again: on her shoulder, inscribed in ink, encircled by a heart.

Alex Orlando can be reached at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Widow of war hero accused of taking money, gift cards from Kmart 01/14/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 14, 2013 9:54pm]
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