In the days since a botched car theft left 3-year-old Coraline Leon-Alcocer sitting alone and cold in an empty parking lot in the middle of the night, she continues to relive the ordeal, her mother said in an interview Thursday.
“Especially in the first couple days, she was saying she was cold when she wasn’t cold, her body was warm,” her mother, Rita Leon, said. “That’s something that comes up a lot for her.”
Leon said she and Coraline were on the way to spend the first night in their new apartment around 8:30 p.m. Jan. 2 when she stopped at the Smith’s Food and Drug at Lomas and San Pedro NE to fill up a couple water jugs. Leon stepped out to fill the jugs, leaving her daughter in the car a few feet from where she was standing.
Minutes later, a thief jumped into Leon’s car and drove away with Coraline inside.
“I basically just started screaming,” Leon said. “I’m right in front of the grocery store, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs. I really don’t know everything that happened after that. I went into a state of hysteria – for the next several hours, I was just a complete, raging basket case.”
Police found the car an hour later, but Coraline was not inside. (Police initially spelled her name as Caraline, but her mother said it is Coraline.)
Coraline’s disappearance sparked an Amber Alert and a search throughout Northeast Albuquerque. Around 1 a.m., the little girl was found sitting alone in a parking lot near Indian School and San Mateo NE, wearing her purple jacket with her hood up and mittens on. She was cold – the temperature was in the low 20s – but otherwise unharmed.
“They were surprised that she would sit there in the parking lot and wait,” Leon said. “But I know she knew she was waiting for me. She knew her mom was coming.”
The firefighters told Leon that Coraline was very chatty when they found her, talking about the books she’d had read to her and asking about their jobs. Since then, Coraline has continued to talk about the people she met.
“She keeps talking about the firefighters, especially a girl firefighter” who responded that night, Leon said. “She’s really into knowing who people are and what they do.”
Although Leon said Coraline doesn’t seem less trusting since the ordeal, she is aware of what happened.
“In the beginning, she told me not to get water anymore, because that man might take the car,” Leon said.
Leon said she hasn’t asked Coraline extensively about what happened in the hours they were apart, but the girl has offered up a couple of details.
“She said he didn’t talk to her, and that he was chewing gum,” Leon said. “She said she fell asleep on the street, and then she laughed about it.”
Police released a grainy surveillance video showing the car thief, along with another man, standing in a parking lot. The mayor offered a $5,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest.
Neither the thief nor the man standing next to him has been found, said officer Tanner Tixier, a spokesman for the Albuquerque Police Department.
The community’s outpouring of support has been a huge help in moving forward, Leon said. Her friends have donated meals and set up a GoFundMe account to help her pay expenses while she’s taking a break from teaching yoga to regroup.
Leon said she didn’t realize how many strangers helped with the search until she saw media reports several days later. Firefighters, police officers and the Guardians of the Children motorcycle club flooded the streets looking for Coraline.
“People were just driving around screaming her name, knocking on doors – I didn’t know that,” Leon said. “I think about it and think that was really amazing.”
Leon said that, even though Coraline was missing for only a few hours, the fear she felt when her daughter was missing has been hard to shake.
“It definitely changes your perspective on life and how you look at things in general,” Leon said. “And the gratitude that you have for the small blessings. Good things come to good people, but that doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen.”