Chase Camarena gingerly placed his palm over his chest and grinned.
“I have two weird scars,” the soft-spoken 26-year-old said, tracing an “x” over his right pectoral.
One is from the knife blade that pierced his skin that Saturday night, he explained.
A tube doctors used to drain blood from his right lung left the other.
At times, Camarena laughed as he spoke of an attack that left him in a Wichita hospital fighting critical injuries for eight days.
He joined the J.C. Penney loss prevention team a little more than a year ago. A tax preparer by day, Camarena decided to pair his degree in business administration with a bachelor’s in accounting. He needed money to pay for more schooling.
Working part time as a loss prevention officer — hired by retailers to recover stolen merchandise — added excitement to his otherwise orderly work day.
But on Nov. 10, following a confrontation with an armed shoplifter, he lay in the parking lot of Towne East Square, unsure he’d live to see Nov. 11.
“It was totally unexpected. Sometimes you just don’t see those things coming,” Camarena said as he sat behind his tidy desk at Neighborhood Income Tax Service two weeks after doctors said he could return to work.
“It seemed like a standard stop at the time, but things can change in an instant.”
He wasn’t scheduled to work that night.
But Camarena, eager to wind down, stuck around.
Sometime before 6:30 p.m., Camarena and his partner — a fellow J.C. Penney loss prevention officer — were monitoring video feeds from dozens of store security cameras at Towne East Square.
Camarena said they witnessed a man and a woman stuffing clothing into their own, loose-fitting attire.
“They were racking it up pretty fast,” he recalled. “Before we knew it, it seemed like they had about $100 worth of merchandise.”
Within minutes, the duo ducked out the store’s west doors.
The officers followed, halting the pair.
The man and the woman denied the theft, Camarena said, and pushed past.
“They kept wanting to go out to their car. That’s when we had to get physical.”
In a joint effort, the officers wrestled the man to the ground. Camarena said he pulled out handcuffs and tried to snap them on the man’s wrists.
When the woman walked off, Camarena’s partner left the scuffle to follow her.
That’s when the man pulled a knife.
Still crouching on the pavement, Camarena said he saw “a quick upper-cut motion.” Felt a thud. Saw blood on the blade.
Then Camarena felt warm wetness on his shirt.
“At first I didn’t think I got stabbed. I thought it (the knife) bounced off my chest. I felt the blunt force,” he said, remembering the attack.
Later he learned the blade sliced through his lung, causing internal bleeding.
“Then all of a sudden blood squirted out of my mouth.”
As he lay on the pavement, staring at the sky, Camarena said he listened to chaos unfolding around him and struggled to breathe. “Twenty-six years on this earth was pretty good,” he recalled thinking.
One man — probably a shopper, Camarena said — took off his coat and pressed it to the wound. He spoke calmly to Camarena until paramedics arrived.
Authorities on the scene that night said other J.C. Penney employees, mall security and shoppers detained the suspects — later identified as Jaison E. Travelbee, 38, and Tracy J. Cordray, 37— until police arrived to arrest the pair.
Travelbee is charged with aggravated battery in connection with Camarena’s stabbing and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — both felonies — and misdemeanor theft, according to Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Georgia Cole.
He is being held in Sedgwick County Jail in lieu of $50,000 bond. He is set for jury trial Jan. 22 and faces a minimum presumptive prison sentence of 38 months, if found guilty of the charges.
Cordray, who pleaded guilty to felony theft, bailed out of jail Nov. 30, Cole said. Her sentencing is set for Jan. 9 in Sedgwick County District Court. She faces probation.
Force is ‘last resort’
Camarena estimates he has used physical force to subdue one in 10 shoplifters.
He said at J.C. Penney physical measures are used at each employee’s discretion, and are usually “a last resort to get the situation resolved.”
“We never try to hurt the person we are taking down,” he said, adding that his superiors did not expect or encourage him to use force against a suspected thief.
“We’re not trying to be gentle, either, but we’re not trying to inflict pain.”
Camarena said he studied policy and procedures, received store-issued loss prevention certification, completed mock shoplifting scenarios and sparred with fellow employees before he was authorized to confront shoplifters on his own.
That November night was the first time Camarena said he encountered an armed thief.
Wichita police Lt. Doug Nolte said one of the predictors of possible injury — which isn’t common, he said — is whether a store gives its employees the authority to challenge suspected thieves.
“Some don’t confront, others do,” Nolte said. “There is no law that governs how or who is given” the authority to confront shoplifters. “One of the things predicated on it is that if the store doesn’t do it, they’re (employees) not in harm’s way.”
He added: “You just don’t know that they (shoplifters) are going to do when they are confronted.”
A loss prevention official with J.C. Penney at Towne East told The Eagle by phone he could not comment on Camarena’s case or discuss the store’s shoplifter apprehension policies.
J.C. Penney Media Relations Manager Joey Thomas also said he could not discuss loss prevention training methods, citing concerns for employee security, in an e-mailed response to phone messages left with J.C. Penney.
“We take every dangerous incident seriously,” Thomas said by e-mail, “and the safety of our team members is always our top concern.”
Nearly six weeks after the stabbing, Camarena said he’s mostly recovered. He spent eight days in Wesley Medical Center — many in critical condition — laboring to breathe. Doctors fed a tube through his chest to drain the blood spilling into his right lung and inflate the organ.
The tube was the most painful part of the ordeal, Camarena said.
“You know, it was weird. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all,” the 26-year-old said when asked to describe the stabbing. “Even in the healing process, it didn’t hurt.”
Debra Camarena said she credits the unknown shopper who slowed her son’s bleeding that night for helping to save his life.
Chase Camarena calls the man “the good Samaritan,” she said.
“I do believe in guardian angels. I believe he had one through all that,” Debra Camarena said. “Whoever that good Samaritan was, I’d like to thank him personally, for stepping in and saving him.”
Knowing the outcomes and the risk, Camarena said he’d follow the same procedures and still make the stop.
“That’s Chase’s nature,” John Camarena said of his son. “If there’s a task — a responsibility — that’s required of him, he’s going to do it to the best of his ability.”
“The way he looks at it, if people are trying to steal, that’s against the law, and he’s going to stop them from doing it. It’s pretty simple.”
Although J.C. Penney officials declined to comment on the case, Camarena said he thinks the company would welcome him back to his job. He grinned when asked whether he’ll return.
“I’m unsure. I’m unsure,” he said. “I’m sure that I shouldn’t, but I’m not sure that I won’t.
“It’s a really hard thing to give up.”