The authorities in southern New Jersey said Saturday that they had arrested a 16-year-old boy for activating a public-address system at a Wal-Mart store last week and ordering “all black people” to leave.
The boy, from Atlantic County, was charged by Gloucester County authorities with bias and intimidation and harassment in connection with the episode last Sunday. If convicted, he could face up to a year in a juvenile detention center, officials said. His name was not released because he is a minor.
According to the police, the boy picked up a public-address telephone in the Wal-Mart in Washington Township, one of two dozen accessible to the store’s customers, and said, “All black people, leave the store now.”
A store manager quickly apologized over the public-address system, witnesses said, and the police and the store opened separate investigations that included a review of images captured by the store’s security cameras.
Rafael Muñiz, the Washington Township police chief, said that while the cameras did not record anyone speaking on the public-address system, images showed three people — the suspect, a young man and a woman — standing near the phone just before the announcement, and rushing from the store just after it.
Investigators also scoured Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, and found postings, including some that the police chief said involved “kids bragging” about what happened.
With the help of anonymous tipsters, he added, investigators were led to the suspect, who was arrested Friday.
“We got lucky,” Chief Muñiz said Saturday at a news conference.
The suspect had been accompanied to the store by a friend and the friend’s mother, the authorities said. Neither the friend nor his mother had been charged, though Chief Muñiz left open the possibility that they could face prosecution for failing to report a crime.
The police would not disclose any details about the suspect, including his race.
In the course of their inquiry, officials said, investigators discovered at least two similar occurrences at the store in recent months.
The store’s parent company, Wal-Mart Stores, issued a statement saying it had modified its intercom system at the store to prevent such breaches.
“We’re pleased this matter is resolved,” the statement said. “We again apologize to all of our customers and associates who had to listen to something so offensive.”
In a statement on Friday, the company said: “We’re appalled by this incident and are amazed that anyone could be so backward and mean-spirited in this day and age.”
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a history of discrimination and labor complaints involving minorities and women, though in recent years it has redoubled its efforts to promote diversity at its stores.
Last year, the company agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused it of discriminating against blacks applying for jobs as truck drivers.
News of the arrest circulated among the customers at the Washington Township store on Saturday afternoon.
Paulette Duckrey, 43, who is black, said that when she heard about the episode, she guessed that it was a prank by a customer.
“I assumed it couldn’t have been an employee,” she said.