One minute, 4-year-old Andy was right by her side Tuesday afternoon, munching away on a hot dog.The next minute, baby sitter Paula Caceres turned to find a stranger tugging the frightened boy away.
Gripped by terror, Caceres said her heart was racing when she ran up to the man while screaming “No!” Startled, the man released Andy’s arm and then ran away, she said.
Tuesday afternoon--as Andy satsafely in Caceres’ living room watching television--the young woman and Andy’s father, Francisco Ornelas, reflected on how quickly a routine day could turn into every parent’s nightmare.
“It all happened in less than one minute,” said Caceres, who has been baby-sitting for the Ornelas family for four years. “This has never happened before. I thought Costa Mesa was a safe city.”
Caceres described the thwarted kidnapper as a 23-year-old white male, cleanshaven, who was barefoot and wearing a white T-shirt, cut-off jeans and a blue baseball cap. Costa Mesa police searched for the man with police helicopters and officers on the street for nearly three hours but said they were still without a suspect Tuesday evening.
As a composite sketch was circulated Tuesday, some wondered whether the incident was related to at least three other attempted kidnappings that have occurred in the county since April.
“It’s so hard to say at this point,” said Costa Mesa Police Lt. Ron Smith about whether the attempted child snatchings are related. “These are pretty rare occurrences.”
Last month in Santa Ana, police said a man tried to lure a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy into his car in separate incidents as they walked home from school.
A week earlier in Huntington Beach, police said a couple tried to kidnap a 6-month-old girl from a grocery store parking lot but were stopped by the infant’s mother, who wrestled with the assailants.
Smith said such incidents are especially difficult to solve because they are not linked to custody battles, runaways or other family conflicts.
“When it’s a perfect stranger type thing like this, it certainly stands out,” Smith said. “This one concerns us.”
Caceres said the attempted kidnapping took place as Andy was walking behind her on the way to the coin-operated laundry at Fairview Road and Wilson Street. After stepping inside to wash her clothes, she looked around and noticed Andy was not there.
When she ran outside, she discovered the boy struggling in the arms of his would-be kidnapper.
The same man had been walking behind them when they left the market next door. He looked “clean-cut” and she didn’t give him another thought, Caceres said.
Ornelas said he was shocked to hear about the attempted kidnapping, which happened while he and his wife, Ana, were at work. He said he was grateful nothing happened to his youngest son.
“It’s so dangerous out there,” said Ornelas, 46, who has three other children. “I think if someone stole my child, I would die. Just looking at him now and thinking about that gives me the chills.”
The day’s events didn’t seem to concern Andy, who did not appear traumatized. Ornelas said he planned to treat the boy to his favorite meal--chicken McNuggets at McDonald’s.
“I don’t even want to think about what happened today,” said the shaken but relieved father.