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They were charged with theft and fired, accused of scamming money from a Tim Hortons where they worked as cashiers.

Now, seven years after Charlene Walsh and Amanda MacNeil lost their jobs at an Etobicoke coffee shop, they're suing police and the owner and managers of a Tim Hortons franchise for $23.5-million, alleging their former employer compromised the integrity of investigating officers by plying them with free coffee and doughnuts.

The jury trial begins today in Toronto.

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"It's scandalous," Ernest Guiste, the lawyer for both women, said yesterday. "We want to teach them a lesson that you can't take advantage of working-class people."

The lawsuit names four police officers along with former Toronto police chiefs David Boothby and Julian Fantino, as well as the coffee shop franchise's owner and two managers. Lawyers representing the defendants either declined to comment or did not return calls yesterday.

Court documents outlining the defence case say that the firing of the two women and the laying of charges were based on reasonable grounds, including a videotape allegedly showing a theft in progress. No bribery occurred, the documents say.

The lawsuit arose after police were called to the Tim Hortons franchise on Albion Road, located near Toronto Pearson International Airport in the early-morning hours of June 3, 1999.

The manager accused Ms. Walsh, a three-year employee, and Ms. MacNeil, with more than a year of experience, of stealing money from the shop. He told police he had the videotape to prove it.

The video allegedly shows both women taking payments from customers at the drive-through window and failing to ring the order into the till. It also allegedly shows them pocketing bills from the cash register or adding the money to their personal tip jars.

The store's earnings were short by as much as $100 a shift on the days worked by Ms. Walsh, and were also consistently short after Ms. MacNeil's shifts, documents for the Toronto police claim.

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The night police officers arrived, Ms. Walsh, now 29, was charged with theft under $5,000 and fired.

About a month later, after the store owner allegedly complained to police that "one woman was charged and the other was not," Ms. MacNeil, now 26, was also charged with the same crime and fired.

But on June 6, 2000, a judged dismissed the criminal charge against Ms. Walsh based on a lack of evidence against her.

Similarly, the Crown dropped its case against Ms. MacNeil later that year because it found "no reasonable prospect of conviction," according to documents filed by the women's lawyer.

Both women maintain their innocence, and their lawsuit was filed about a year after they were fired.

It alleges the franchise owner and managers lied so that Ms. Walsh, who was seven months pregnant at the time, could be fired rather than taking a paid maternity leave.

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It also claims the police investigation was biased by the doughnut shop's policy of giving police officers free food and beverages.

The lawsuit alleges the officers didn't investigate the case properly and sided with the store owner because "they felt beholden to her."

The officers "vehemently deny" those claims, according to their statement of defence, adding that one officer hadn't been at that particular Tim Hortons in the previous six months.

Documents filed by the police defendants also state the two chiefs acted properly as supervisors and were not responsible for making sure that cases with no reasonable prospect of conviction don't make it to court.

Brigitte Regenscheit, the franchise owner and one of the defendants, did not respond to an interview request. But she was quoted in a Toronto newspaper in 2000 saying she had the right to give freebies to whomever she wanted -- and that it had nothing to do with buying the favour of police officers.

Mr. Guiste says the integrity of police officers is compromised when they take freebies, no matter how small. "You're tainted," he said.

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Today, Ms. Walsh lives in Toronto where she is raising her daughters, aged 2 and 6. She and her husband split about two years after she was fired, due in part to the stress it brought on, she says. "It's very depressing," she said yesterday. "I'm just really annoyed for everything that I've been going through."

Ms. MacNeil has an eight-month-old son and says she and her partner struggle to get by financially because "I can't pull my own weight."

Both women say they've been able to find only temporary, low-paying jobs because their criminal charges show up when potential employers do record checks.

"It follows you wherever you go," Ms. MacNeil said.

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