Witness: Rowcroft had key for cash

Former Kmart employee said he left town before trial to protect his family

Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2003

A second witness testified Monday that Frank Brian Rowcroft had the key to the Kmart cash cage on Easter morning in 2002, when nearly $100,000 was believed to have been taken from the safe at the now-closed Juneau store.

Eric Harrell, the night manager during the hours leading up to the theft, was the second witness to testify that he left Alaska the week before Rowcroft went to trial Nov. 3 on a first-degree theft charge. Harrell said he left Juneau in part for the "protection of his family."

He told Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins that he had been in jail since Oct. 31, when he was detained on a material witness warrant in Bellingham, Wash. He also testified that he left Juneau to get married to Marie Ehlers in Las Vegas.

Last week Ehlers testified that she believed Rowcroft threatened to harm her, and she was afraid to testify. She said she gave Harrell's cash cage key to Rowcroft at about 2:30 a.m. March 31, 2002. The theft was discovered later that morning after power in the building was disrupted, causing a crisis in the store's freezers.

Collins released Harrell on his own recognizance Monday afternoon but warned him that he was under a court order to return to the witness stand Wednesday, after the Veterans Day holiday.

Assistant District Attorney Doug Gardner is expected to rest his case Wednesday, after defense attorney Louis Menendez finishes cross-examining Harrell.

Harrell testified that Rowcroft had been his best friend when they worked together at Kmart and was the godfather to his children. He said about a month before the theft, Rowcroft told him he was expecting an inheritance from his grandmother and asked if he would like $20,000 to help his children.

Harrell testified that his youngest child spit up on him before he went into work for the overnight shift, forcing him to change clothes. He left the key in the pocket to the pants he changed.

About midnight he asked Rowcroft to pick up the key from his residence, he said. Rowcroft came into the store with his then-fiancé, Alia McAlister, at about 3:45 a.m., but said he hadn't picked up the key yet, Harrell said. Harrell said Rowcroft gave him the key back between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

Harrell said he opened the combination safe at around 6 a.m. and found it almost empty.

He contradicted earlier testimony from McAlister, who denied she was in Kmart in the hours before the theft was discovered.

McAlister also testified that there was no message left on her answering machine a little more than an hour later. Harrell said he left a message, and that Rowcroft called him about five minutes later.

"Did you know where he was calling from?" Assistant District AttorneyGardner asked.

Harrell said he didn't know whether Rowcroft was calling from a cell phone - he didn't have a cell phone number on the store contact list at the time. He said Rowcroft told him that due to the power outage, circuit breakers upstairs might need to be reset.

While cross-examining Harrell, Menendez noted that just before the staged outage, a member of Rowcroft's staff left the store and Harrell invited a woman working in the back of the building to go outside for a smoke break.

"Another coincidence," Menendez said, bringing an objection from Gardner.

"Do you find that in any way coincidental?" Menendez asked Harrell.

Gardner objected again.

Menendez changed the subject and asked Harrell why his fingerprints were on items inside the safe.

Harrell said part of his job was handling the containers that went into the safe.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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