The police call started as a shoplifting case Wednesday in York. It ended with ice cream and birthday cake – and hugs for five kids as young as age 4 who had been living in tents but are safe now.
It ended with a police station rocking from singing and many police officers in tears.
York police Cpl. Ken Sibley was first on the scene at the Family Dollar on Liberty Street around 1 p.m. after the shoplifting call was broadcast.
Sibley arrived to see a woman and five kids leaving the store, according to police and incident reports. Sibley talked to the woman, and interviewed the clerk, found stolen items the woman allegedly had stuffed in the kids’ backpacks. She allegedly used the children as decoys. Sibley detained the woman in his police car but the kids ran because the woman urged them to run, Sibley said.
“My first concern was for those kids,” Sibley said.
Sibley rushed after the children as they scattered into woods behind the store. The woman slipped out of the police car. Sibley called for backup. Other officers arrived as Sibley called out for the kids. He ran to the back of the store, pumping his arms, and into the trees.
Finally, the kids came to meet him.
Sibley and Lt. Keith Wills put the woman, identified by police as the mother of the children, in custody.
Sibley had five terrified children on his hands.
“They were distraught, sobbing,” Sibley said. “I have three children of my own. I did what works. I bought them ice cream.”
Sibley took the kids in the store and gave them treats, then other officers took the five children – ages 4, 5, 7, 10 and 12 – to the police department.
The mother went to jail, charged with five counts of unlawful neglect of a child, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, resisting arrest and shoplifting.
The mother’s name is a public record and on a police report. She is in jail and facing several felonies. But The Herald is not naming her to protect the identities of the children.
“The kids were the victims here,” said Sgt. John Buchanan. “We all wanted to help them. This was all about these kids after we saw what was going on.”
The police in York were not done helping the children.
The kids finally talked as officers dried their tears. The cops found out the children had been living in tents near Kings Mountain, N.C., said Lt. Dale Edwards. They hadn’t eaten in several hours, Edwards said.
“They needed us. Not later. Right then,” Edwards said.
Pizza was ordered, toys found. The officers finally found out the 10-year-old, a girl, who would not talk for hours, had a special day Wednesday.
“It was her birthday,” Buchanan said. “This is what she had to go through on her birthday.”
Sgt. Bill Stiles pushed some money into Buchanan’s hand and Buchanan rushed to the grocery store. He bought a birthday cake with the little girl’s name on it – and balloons. The kind you blow up and twist into animals.
“We had a birthday party,” Buchanan said.
The department’s entire day shift showed up and stayed. The department training room was turned into a police-style Chuck E. Cheese – but with wanted posters on the walls. Detectives and the police chief, dispatchers and officers not out on calls arrived and talked to the children. The officers put some balloons on their heads.
“I have never been more proud to be a police officer, more proud of the people who serve in York, than I was of those officers Wednesday,” said Chief Andy Robinson. “That’s what being a police officer is all about. That’s what being a human being is all about.”
Cpl. Cheryl Gregory, a school resource officer, was called to help with the two girls. She brushed the hair of one of the girls, soothed her, told her that she was safe. The girls gave Gregory a manicure. They watched a movie. They held hands. They talked about life and one of the girls told Gregory when she grew up she wanted to be a cop.
Cheryl Gregory cried.
“It kinda broke my heart,” Gregory said. “I kinda wanted to take them home with me.”
But Gregory couldn’t.
Officers had called agents with the S.C. Department of Social Services. Police could not find any family for the children, so DSS by law had to take custody, Robinson said.
But the party was not over as DSS agents arrived.
Everybody in the building got together. They sang loud, and they sang proud. The song “Happy Birthday” rang out through the building. Tough cops cried and sang louder.
The 10-year-old girl smiled. Officers hugged her and her siblings.
All the officers agreed, the song meant more Wednesday than any could remember. They hoped it was a happy birthday.