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Whitehall — When is a hug more than a hug?

That is, when does it stop being what a resident called a “handshake from the heart” and turn into something another termed “sort of creepy”?

The question lies at the heart of a controversy roiling this small town in western Michigan.

In August, supermarket clerk Fred Civis was arrested and fired from his job of 39 years after a customer he hugged reported him to the store and police.

Many in town have rallied behind the popular cashier, launching a boycott that has slowed business at Plumb’s Valu-Rite Foods.

The growing anger also led to death threats against a woman wrongly believed to be the complainant.

“An explosion of appalling behavior is growing from this entire mess,” said resident Shelley Lewis.

Civis, 57, charged with assault and battery, is scheduled to appear in District Court in Muskegon on Oct. 15. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

He declined comment, but his wife said he did nothing wrong.

“This is a terrible accusation,” Marsha Civis wrote in a Facebook message directed toward the complainant. “I hope you will grow up and just love people.”

Plumb’s said the problem went beyond a simple hug.

Civis had been warned several times about touching customers in ways they found too personal, said Jim Nader, Plumb’s president and chief executive.

During a warning last year, Civis was told another incident could lead to his firing, Nader said.

“We don’t terminate someone for giving unwanted hugs,” he said. “He just couldn’t follow the policy.”

Everyone in the community of 2,700 seems to know Civis. He was 18 when he began working at Plumb’s, which was the only grocery in town until 2010.

At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, he is a bear of a man. Whether the bear is a teddy or grizzly depends on one’s vantage point.

Some customers sought him as a cashier, even if his line was longer than others. Others avoided him, including a few who stopped shopping at the store.

Civis has an effusive personality that can come across a little strong, said friends. He greets people with a booming voice and sometimes stutters and pauses awkwardly as he searches for something funny to say.

“He’s a little different,” said Lorna Cavanaugh, 68, who has known Civis his whole life. “But there’s not a malicious bone in his body.”

If Civis didn’t know a female customer, he might suggest or ask if she needed a hug, said friends. If he knew the woman, he might embrace her unbidden.

Supporters described the hug as Civis reaching around the woman’s shoulders as they stood side by side.

But other customers said the embraces turned more invasive in the past few years.

A woman said the hulking clerk once wrapped both arms tightly around her, stroking her and whispering things in her ear as he nuzzled her neck. He then followed her around the store.

“I know the difference between a friendly hug and a grope,” the woman wrote on a local TV news website.

July incident reported

The controversy began in July when Kendall Maczka was checking out at a self-service lane at Plumb’s.

Civis came over and, after bagging her items, put his arm around her shoulders, brushing his hand against her backside, according to a police report.

She snapped at Civis, who walked away silently.

She told police Civis had been hugging her for three or four years. She said it wasn’t an issue until the latest incident.

She said he embraced her only when she shopped alone. When she was with her husband, Civis ignored her.

“She said it creeps her out,” wrote the officer.

Maczka, 25, declined to discuss the incident with a reporter.

Two days after she reported Civis to the store and police, he was fired.

Plumb’s had received complaints about Civis in 2012 and January 2013, according to his dismissal notice, which was contained in the police report.

After the 2013 complaint, in which a customer said she was embraced by Civis every time she went to the store, he received a written reprimand and was forbidden from initiating any more hugs.

In August, Civis was arrested at his apartment a half-mile from the store.

Released on $1,000 bond, he’s working on a plea deal with prosecutors, said Timothy Maat, chief assistant prosecutor of Muskegon County.

During the furor over his arrest and firing, four women came forward to tell police about being hugged by Civis.

Some boycott grocery store

Supporters of Civis have raised $689 to help him pay for an attorney.

A Facebook post giving information about the fundraising thanked people for their contributions.

Backers also launched a boycott against Plumb’s last month by picketing the store. About 80 people held signs, chanted, “We want Fred,” and collected donations in a gallon milk container.

A woman with a ukulele played a song.

“Take my hand, take my shoulders, too,” she warbled. “For I choose a world, filled with compassionate hugs.”

The boycott seems to be having an impact, said neighboring stores. The parking lot they share with Plumb’s has had noticeably fewer cars during the past month.

Plumb’s conceded business was down.

“I will say it has hurt a little,” Nader said.

After meeting with a store official last week, Civis signed a letter asking supporters to end the boycott.

The letter, posted on the store’s Facebook page, said Plumb’s is a great place to shop, provides jobs for a lot of people, and gives back to local schools and organizations.

“It is better to have our community together than divided,” read the letter. “Let’s put the divisions aside and support our community Plumb’s.”

Asked what Civis received in return for signing the letter, Nader said he couldn’t discuss it.

Despite the letter, the organizer of the boycott said he wouldn’t stop the ban.

In fact, Tim Cooper plans to picket the store anew, this time on Oct. 11. He said Civis agreed to the letter under duress and received very little in return.

“Once again Fred has been taken advantage of,” he said.

Support, condemnation

The widely divergent views of the serial hugger are reflected in two dueling Facebook pages.

On “Boycott Whitehall Plumb’s for Fred,” which has 13,300 likes, a woman said she hopes her 7-year-old son “grows up to be like Fred.”

The creator of “Support for the Victims of Fred Civis” (60 likes) referred to Civis as a sexual assailant.

On the increasingly anti-social media, the two sides insult each other, make vulgar comments and challenge one another to fistfights.

“I hope whoever he hugged rots in hell and soon,” Phyllis Kurtzman wrote last month.

If emotions were aflame before, they turned into a supernova last month when a Whitehall man wrote on the boycott page that Civis deserved to be fired.

Jeff Woodland said his wife had complained to Plumb’s several times about the cashier hugging her.

The name of the person whose complaint led to the firing and criminal charges wasn’t known at the time, so people reading Woodland’s comments assumed it was his wife, Kim.

The reaction was immediate and severe.

A deluge of invective was unleashed against the couple. The milder epithets described Woodland as a pantywaist crybaby and his wife as a “hoity toity touch me not.”

“She is now the most hated person in West Michigan,” wrote Chris Goostrey, 39, of Muskegon.

“Kim Woodland is nothing more than a gossipy, loud mouthed trouble maker,” wrote another. “Enjoy your neighborhood Kim, you have become the outsider.”

The Woodlands said they received death threats, which police took seriously.

No charges have been filed.

Kim Woodland, contacted by a reporter, said she wasn’t one of the four people who came forward after Civis’ arrest.

As for the hullabaloo surrounding her husband’s comments, she said she barely recognizes her hometown anymore.

“They needed someone to lynch,” she said. “It got out of hand. It took on a life of its own.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

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