The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 15, 2013

Girl snatched at school found barefoot in park

PHILADELPHIA — A passer-by found an abducted 5-year-old girl huddled beneath a playground slide in the pre-dawn cold Tuesday, nearly 20 hours after a stranger claiming to be her mother signed her out of her Philadelphia elementary school under the guise of taking her to breakfast.

Nelson Mandela Myers said he found the freezing girl barefoot, wearing only a damp adult-sized T-shirt. He was drawn to the park in Upper Darby by her cries for help.

"She was just mainly shivering and saying that she was cold," he said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. Myers, 27, wrapped her in his jacket and called police from his cellphone. "I'm just glad I was there at the right time."

The girl was taken Monday morning from the William C. Bryant School, in West Philadelphia. Authorities released surveillance video showing a woman wearing a full-length, black Muslim garment, her face covered by a black veil, taking the girl out of the school.

After being discovered Tuesday, the girl was taken to the hospital to be checked out, but police said she didn't appear to be hurt. Capt. John Darby of the Philadelphia police department said officials are screening the girl to determine if she may have been sexually assaulted.

"There were no overt signs of physical injuries to the child," Darby said at a news conference, adding that police have had only preliminary interviews with the girl. "We have a fragile victim here."

According to Darby, she told her rescuer: "I've been stolen."

District officials said school policy wasn't followed in releasing the girl into her abductor's custody.

The girl's mother had appeared on local media Monday night, tearfully pleading for her safe return, and explaining how she also wears the traditional chador and niqab.

The Associated Press is not naming her because it generally doesn't identify those who are or might be victims of sexual assault.

Darby said the suspect went into the school Monday a short time after the girl's mother had dropped her off there. The woman signed in with a hall monitor — using an illegible signature — and then went straight to the girl's classroom. "She indicated that she was the child's mother," Darby said. "And that she was going to take the child to breakfast."

The suspect apparently knew and targeted the girl, Darby said, but the girl didn't know her. However, she appeared to go willingly.

Police are looking for the suspect and trying to track down more information. Upper Darby police Superintendent Michael Chitwood said it appears the girl was driven or walked to the playground. Investigators are trying to track down surveillance footage from the area.

"We believe that the little girl was dumped here," Chitwood said.

Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the school district, said the district is investigating. Under the school's policy, he said, the woman should have signed in at the door and then gone straight to the office — not the classroom. "The exchange does not happen at the classroom level," he said.

The district is investigating and reviewing its policies with school employees, Gallard said.

Myers, the rescuer, was on his way to work when he heard the girl's cries, and his thoughts turned to his own 5-year-old daughter.

"I just wanted to do the same thing someone would do for my child," he said.

Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said in a Twitter post on Tuesday night that Myers would receive the full $10,000 reward posted for information leading to the girl's return.

McDonald said Mayor Michael Nutter praised Myers for his "sharp eye" and "quick thinking" when he discovered the girl in the park.

"Community policing is doing right when (you) see something wrong," McDonald said.

___

Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson contributed to this story.

 

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