Walgreens murder exposes weakness of managers failing to eradicate harassment

June 25, 2022

One of the most important responsibilities of a manager is to protect employees from harm, including harassment.

In a horrific case from Colorado, 17-year-old Walgreens employee Riley Whitelaw is dead and her 28-year-old co-worker Joshua Johnson has been charged with first-degree murder after Whitelaw reportedly rejected the accused’s advances for over a year, and shared her concerns about working with him to management.

According to the police affidavit supporting the arrest of the accused, on June 11 at around 8 p.m., police responded to a report from Walgreens manager Justin Zunino that he found the body of employee Whitelaw in the breakroom and there “was blood everywhere.” Police found the deceased body of Whitelaw with “significant trauma” to her neck and a “large amount of blood on the floor around the head of the victim” with “significant blood stains on the floor, cabinets and counter of the breakroom.”

After Whitelaw failed to return from break, Zunino reviewed surveillance video and observed the accused co-worker “stacking bins in front of a surveillance camera” blocking the view of the camera. In addition, Zunino observed that someone taped paper over the windows in the area of the breakroom. “The restroom closed sign was in the area to keep people out, which typically does not occur till [sic] the close of business,” according to the affidavit.

This observation led Zunino to the breakroom where he found Whitlow.

Zunino told officers that Whitlow complained to him about a year ago because the accused made advances toward her and it made her feel uncomfortable. Zunino told officers he warned the accused to “keep things professional and [the accused] appeared to be receptive.”

Zunino told the officers that “several weeks ago,” Whitelaw “requested to work a different schedule because [the accused] made her feel uncomfortable. When she made another request for additional hours, she was told it would require working with [the accused].”

Another manager, Crystal Ishmael, told officers that three months earlier, Whitelaw’s boyfriend began working at Walgreens. Ishmael noticed that the accused appeared to be acting jealous. There was no indication in the affidavit she did anything with this information.

A customer heard a female screaming and what sounded like stalls slamming.

Police found the accused walking along the interstate with scratches on his hands and face. He admitted to officers he at one time had a crush on Whitelaw, but he didn’t have a crush on her any longer because he was intimate with Ishmael (a fact the officers did not confirm in the affidavit).

The accused admitted to being in the breakroom where he “fell in the blood.” He admitted he “went home right after ‘what happened’ and took off all his clothes because they were all bloody.” He denied stacking the totes even though he is on surveillance video doing so.

A 17-year-old teen trying to earn some income simply wanted to be left alone at her job. She deserved that. It was the manager’s responsibility to make that happen.

Employers and managers have an affirmative duty to protect employees when they are made aware of concerns such as harassment. That appears to have not happened here.

The minute that the teen mentioned to the manager concerns about the accused, the accused should have been fired or given a final written warning. Simply telling an employee to “keep things professional” is an insufficient response.

When the teen again told the manager she didn’t want to work with the accused, this was the red glaring flag that the accused was still bothering her. An immediate investigation should have been conducted and, if the accused was engaging in misconduct, he should have been terminated.

The minute that the female manager observed that the accused was acting “jealous,” she had a duty to act as well.

Employees rarely tell a manager they feel like they are being “harassed.” They say someone is making them uncomfortable, or bothering them, paying them unwanted attention or they are uncomfortable working with them. The employee might downplay it and ask you not to do anything.

It doesn’t matter if the employee asks you to keep it confidential, says she will handle it herself or says it’s not a big deal.

Managers have a legal duty to do something and eradicate the problem, which usually means a termination.

Managers should not ask the employee if she wants to file a formal complaint, if she wants to go to HR or what she wants you to do. The only response from management should be, “I’ll take care of this.” And then take care of this.

Real lives are at stake here — whether violence, emotional trauma or just a miserable workplace. Employees deserve a respectful and healthy workplace, and it’s the job of the manager to make that happen.