OpinionOp-Ed

A gun, some new sneakers and the Bad Stranger

Highway and Road TransportationKidnappingCrime, Law and JusticeTheftFashion Square MallLos Angeles Police Department

There were 8,953 robberies and 320 kidnappings last year in Los Angeles.

Numbers like that have always felt abstract to me. But I realize now that behind each of those robberies and kidnappings, there's a story. I say this with some authority because at 11:15 a.m. on Aug. 29, I became one.

I woke up that morning ready for battle. Preschool was closed, my 3-year-old son, Dean, needed sneakers and my father-in-law — our kids call him Nana — was in town. Our morning activity would be a surgical strike on the Fashion Square Mall in Sherman Oaks. Get in. Get sneaks. Get out.

Not long after 11, the three of us were headed back to the car with some size-10 velcros. Mission accomplished.

The parking lot was filling up fast. Dean insisted on walking in the middle of the traffic lane because the blacktop was lava, obviously, and the center yellow line was a bridge. This drove his grandfather crazy because it wasn't technically safe, even though I was holding Dean's hand.

I opened Dean's door, directly behind mine, and watched him climb into his car seat. I told him to strap himself in and then slid into the driver's seat as Nana took shotgun. Then, as our doors swung shut, the other back door swung open. A 20-year-old kid jumped in.

"It's OK. It's OK. It's OK," he said, finding space for himself in my other son's empty car seat. He was smiling.

"Do you see what I have?!" said the stranger in Lincoln's car seat.

He had a gun in his right hand. He was the bad kind of stranger we'd warned our boys about.

"Don't look at me!"

I stopped looking at him.

"Do what I say and this nightmare will soon be over."

Except this wasn't a nightmare. Any one of us could die at any second.

"Drive."

I inched toward the mall exit and tried to stay focused. Bad Stranger ignored my three requests to let Nana remove Dean from the car.

Here's what pedestrians on Hazeltine Avenue would have seen had they looked more closely as we passed: a tall white guy behind the wheel, a shorter Indian grandfather in the passenger seat and an eerily still child sharing the back seat with an armed Latino wearing a navy plaid shirt and a dark, nondescript baseball cap.

"Drive to your bank. I need $7,000."

I honestly had no idea where my bank was. We just moved into this part of town. This was my first trip to this apparently horrendous mall.

"Stop lying to me!"

I wasn't lying. I asked him for directions.

We drove east on Riverside, no banks in sight, and I said I didn't understand his plan. How could we get that much cash without drawing attention to ourselves? Would Bad Stranger follow me into the bank? Stay in the car with my kid?

"Turn left. Use your blinker."

He directed me into a quiet residential neighborhood north of the mall, and just like that we were alone. Dreadfully alone, with no witnesses.

At the first stop sign, I gave him all the money in my wallet and asked him to get out.

"Turn right."

He took my money. I asked him to get out again.

"Turn left. Give me your wallet."

He was taking Nana's stuff now. He gave me specific driving directions and slowly relieved Nana of his cash, his watch and his wedding ring. Nana, who hadn't seen the gun, was shockingly defiant. ("My ring is stuck.") ("This watch? This thing is junk.") I knew if Nana didn't get us killed, my wife would someday find this funny.

The specificity of the directions terrified me. Bad Stranger had a destination in mind. He had a plan. He started to apologize.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. This is a life-or-death situation."

No kidding, dude.

He said he wasn't a drug addict. As if I cared. He said he was sorry. He was still in my car.

I asked him to get out at every corner, but he insisted on going to a specific location, where I worried we'd be met by a truckload of his friends who were prepping Plan B.

But when we got there, he got out and walked away. The longest 5 minutes of my life were over.

I sped toward Riverside dialing 911 and turned around to look at Dean.

"Daddy? How come I'm not strapped in?" Oops.

I told 911 what happened. I emphasized that Bad Stranger was armed, desperate and more than $6,000 shy of his goal.

Four and a half hours later, the police contacted mall security.

I'll never know how seriously the police took my call. Since I wasn't there to meet the patrol cars — I was busy evacuating my son — it's not clear they believed me. They certainly didn't seem to believe me when I went to the station two hours later.

The good news for tall white guys is we almost never get kidnapped by random strangers at the mall, especially not with our families, especially not in the Fashion Square Mall. The bad news is when we do get kidnapped, we have to answer some tough questions about it, in the sort of room, at the sort of table, where we're used to seeing suspects interrogated on TV, before veteran detectives actually believe us.

Apparently there's a whole sub-class of people who make up stuff like this, and one way to ferret them out is to browbeat people who say they just got robbed.

The crime became real once there was a police report.

The police contacted the mall and reviewed the security tapes. I haven't seen these tapes myself — that would be against corporate policy — but I'm told we're visible throughout the mall's interior but nowhere in the parking lot. That's apparently a thing with mall security and a source of tension with the Los Angeles Police Department: All the good surveillance cameras are inside protecting the merchandise and not outside escorting customers safely to their cars.

The police also dispatched a fingerprint specialist to my car, but Bad Stranger left us nothing, so unless he gets arrested committing a similar crime while wearing Nana's wedding ring, our abduction won't likely be traced to him.

Which is fine by me. There are far worse statistics we could've become that day. And on top of that, he didn't take the velcros.

Andy Callahan is a screenwriter who lives near Sherman Oaks.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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