The woman wanted the carpets to her Mitchellville home cleaned, and the newspaper advertisement touting a carpet cleaning service by Sears seemed like a safe, brand-name choice.
Two men in Sears uniforms came to the woman's house in a van bearing a Sears logo. They cleaned her carpets. They billed her for their work. And then one of the workers sexually assaulted her daughter.
Now, Sears and the subcontractor who employed the two workers have to pay.
On Dec. 15, moments before a Prince George's Circuit Court jury was to announce its verdict, Sears settled a civil suit brought by the assault victim. Attorneys for Sears and the assault victim, who is now 32, agreed to keep settlement terms confidential.
The lawsuit alleged that Sears and the subcontractor, Flagship Carpet Cleaning, were negligent and liable for the assault because neither Flagship nor Sears ever checked the criminal background of the worker who attacked the woman on Dec. 13, 1993. As it turned out, Arthur Von Lanier, 51, had an extensive criminal past, including convictions for armed robbery, illegal possession of a handgun and possession of a controlled dangerous substance.
The lawsuit also alleged fraud, asserting that advertisements and the uniforms worn by the workers would lead unsuspecting customers to believe they were hiring Sears employees, not a subcontractor licensed to use the Sears name in return for a percentage of sales.
Sears settled the case nine days after Flagship agreed to pay the plaintiff $500,000, according to lawyers in the case.
Von Lanier was charged with raping and sexually assaulting the woman. In December 1996, a Circuit Court jury acquitted Von Lanier of rape and convicted him of third-degree sexual offense. He was sentenced to one year in prison and given credit for the 244 days he had been jailed. The rest of his sentence was suspended.
According to documents in the civil case, no one from Flagship or Sears conducted even a cursory background check on Von Lanier or other workers sent into people's homes to clean carpets.
In a civil case deposition, Von Lanier testified that he has spent 17 or 18 years of his adult life in prison. Von Lanier testified that he spent seven years in an Oklahoma prison, but most of his time was served at the Lorton Correctional Center for crimes he committed in the District in the 1970s and early 1980s.
"You know, if I actually add it up, I know it's too much time out of my free time," Von Lanier testified.
In court papers, attorneys for Sears argued that Flagship, not Sears, was responsible for hiring and supervising Von Lanier. Attorneys for Flagship, which folded in early 1996, argued in court papers that Von Lanier was not acting on behalf of the company when he attacked the woman.
On Dec. 18, 1996, the victim testified against Von Lanier in Prince George's Circuit Court.
She testified that Von Lanier and another worker set up cleaning gear on the main floor of the house, where she lived with her family, while she sat on a sofa in the basement.
Von Lanier, who earlier had flirted with her, came to the basement alone and "grabbed me by the arm and pulled me close to his body and began to rub his body against mine," the woman testified.
The woman testified that she told Von Lanier to stop and tried to pull herself away, but Von Lanier put her in a choke hold, pulled her into a bathroom and put his hand over her mouth. Though she bit him, Von Lanier continued his attack and raped her, the woman testified.
The Washington Post agreed not to identify the assault victim. Her Lanham attorney, Kevin J. McCarthy, declined to comment, citing the confidentiality agreement with Sears. Attorneys for Sears and Flagship also declined to comment.
Von Lanier did not return a phone call to his home.