Suspicious Phone Purchases at Wal-Marts in Mid Missouri

Suspicious phone purchase in Jefferson City is fourth reported in mid-Missouri

Author: Taylor Petras, Reporter,
Published On: Dec 09 2015 06:28:26 PM CST   Updated On: Dec 10 2015 12:48:42 PM CST
The FBI is investigating two suspicious purchases at Columbia Walmarts that happened over the weekend.


COLUMBIA, Mo. – ABC 17 News has confirmed someone also tried to buy a suspicious number of phones at Wal-Mart East in Jefferson City, after similar purchases in Columbia, Macon and Lebanon. FBI agents in St. Louis and Springfield have both been contacted and are investigating.

ABC 17 News reported earlier on Wednesday that 100 prepaid cell phones were purchased at two Missouri Walmarts over the weekend, and employees reported the incidents to authorities. On Thursday, police in Jefferson City also said they had a similar report of an attempted purchase within the same time frame.

The Columbia Police Department was notified on Monday of a suspicious purchase at the Walmart on Conley Road. According to the police report, several men bought dozens of phones around 9:30 Friday night.

ABC 17 New talked to a witness who didn’t want to be identified said the men paid with cash.

“Right then and there I knew there was not something adding up about this. It’s not right, it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Who’s going to order 50 phones for Christmas? Who does that?”

“I think on the surface that is suspicious,” said Paul Fennewald, the former Missouri Homeland Security Coordinator. “If I had seen the same thing, I probably would have called somebody also.”

A similar situation also happened hours later at a Walmart in Lebanon, Mo. Police said two men bought about 60 phones. They were taken into custody, but later released because police said they had no legal reason to detain them.

Macon police and the sheriff’s department also said they are investigating a “recent suspicious purchase of multiple cell phones” at their local Wal-Mart.

Fennewald said the prepaid phones are used as a way for criminals to communicate without law enforcement tracking them. He said in many past terrorist attacks cell phones have been used to trigger an explosive device.

The man who saw the phones being purchased in Columbia said he instantly thought the men were up to no good.

“That’s the first thing that ran through my mind that something bad could happen,” he said. “You know, they could be using these phones for terrorist acts.”

Fennewald said the Walmart employees did the right thing by reporting the odd purchase to police. He said everybody should do the same when they see something suspicious.

“If we’re going to prevent that next terrorist attack, especially the next terrorist attack in Columbia, Missouri, or Boone County, it’s not going to be the FBI, it’s not going to be law enforcement, it’s going to be the viewers of this broadcast that are probably going to be the key to preventing.”

ABC 17 News reached out to Walmart Corporate for comment on the incidents in Missouri.

“Because this is an ongoing investigation, I’d refer you to law enforcement for any information for your story,” Betsy Harden, a Walmart spokeswoman, said in an email.