Caraline Leon-Alcocar was found about 1 a.m. Sunday, sitting on a concrete parking space bumper and wearing a purple coat outside the Pinetree Corporate Center near San Mateo and Indian School. She had not been injured.
“I was using my spotlight, and I saw a ball of purple in the middle of a parking lot and thought it was weird,” officer Chris Poccia said Sunday. “And I drove into the parking lot and immediately could tell it was our kiddo.”
Poccia was one of hundreds on the streets late Saturday and into Sunday hunting for the child who was taken at 8:26 p.m. from the Smith’s on Lomas near San Pedro. Her mother was filling up jugs of water just 2 to 3 feet from the running vehicle when a man jumped in and drove away.
“She had her back turned for less than two seconds,” officer Simon Drobik said.
Drobik said that a “good Samaritan” was able to follow the vehicle after hearing the mother screaming. The person lost sight of the car but was able to tell officers which direction it was headed.
Police located the vehicle at 9:01 p.m. in the Savers parking lot at Menaul and Carlisle, but the girl was not inside.
“That ratcheted up the call to the biggest priority we could have,” Drobik said.
Aided by air support and K-9 units, officers continued to search the area near Smith’s where the car was taken and the area near Savers where it was ditched. Hordes of community members also came out to help. Smith’s called in all of its employees to aid in the efforts, Drobik said.
“We had hundreds of volunteers showing up,” he said. Civilians teamed up with officers to knock on doors in the area. Poccia was accompanied by members of the Guardians of the Children motorcycle club, who went door to door along Indian School near San Mateo while he looked in parking lots across the street, eventually finding the girl.
“I asked her if she was OK, and she said she was cold, and she was crying,” he said. “And I picked her up and put her in my car and turned the heat on.”
Caraline’s mother told police that the child did not know how to unbuckle herself, so police knew that the suspect must have taken her out of the vehicle, Drobik said.
APD obtained security camera footage from Smith’s that shows the suspect and a second man in the parking lot. The suspect is described as 25 to 30 years old, approximately 5 feet 11 inches to 6 feet tall, medium to heavy build and possibly Hispanic. He was wearing a puffy black jacket and blue jeans.
Drobik said Sunday night that when caught, the man responsible likely will face kidnapping charges as well child abuse and unlawful taking of a motor vehicle.
“I don’t know what he was thinking or doing,” Drobik said. “But I know he left her, he just abandoned this child on the side of the road, and then dumped the car.”
Police have not said how long the girl was outside, but Drobik said they believe that the man dropped the child off before ditching the car.
“We’re guessing he dumped her between point A and point B,” he said.
Officers are also looking for the second man, who is shown in the footage wearing a Raiders jacket. Poccia said that, earlier in the night, officers had been through the area where Caraline was eventually located. He said the group was elated to find her.
“Everybody was extremely happy,” Poccia said. “Some of the searchers started crying. I’ll be honest, on my way home, I started crying, too. I was just very happy and thankful that we were able to find her.”
Searchers discovered a small wooden cross near where Caraline was found, Poccia said. He brought the cross to the hospital where the child was evaluated, and her mother explained that Caraline’s grandmother had given her the cross earlier in the day.
Drobik said that Caraline will eventually be asked about the incident and the suspect in a Safehouse interview.
Albuquerque police have encouraged residents this winter to take precautions to avoid warm-up thefts, common on cold winter mornings when people leave their running vehicles unattended. The department logged 69 such thefts in December, but Drobik emphasized Sunday that the mother was just steps away from the running vehicle when it was taken.
“We talked last week about vehicle warm-ups, and I said one of the worst calls for an officer to take is when a car gets stolen with a child in it,” Drobik said. “The whole city will shut down and be dedicated to that one call. And the nightmare came true yesterday.”