About three years ago, my dad was getting ready to leave from his visit to see his new grandson. We stood in my kitchen talking. He looked at me in all my new mom glory and said, “You got this kid.” I nodded because this was such a dad thing to say. He continued, “You’re going to do great. I know the love of a parent. I know you would literally walk through Hell to defeat the devil himself for your child.” I nodded, thinking about school problems or friend problems. Boy, was I wrong.
Like many in 2020, our family of four had been cooped up in the same house. Work, school, and family life all collided. It was a lot. It was stressful. So when things started opening up in the summer, we ventured out. We decided to treat our kids to Build-A-Bear to make up for missed birthday celebrations.
My kids got dressed without too much protesting and didn’t fight with each other as we got ready. They even had their shoes on after we asked the first time. They held our hands while we walked through the mall, unaware of where we were going, happy to be out of the house.
They stood there speechless when we told them they could pick out a bear to make, and their little eyes lit up. My husband and I followed them through the store while they gleefully bounced from station to station creating their new stuffed friend. Once they were done, they began asking for food. They had been so good, and this was a special day, so we figured why not just head down to the food court and let them pick something to eat.
Generally speaking, mall food courts give me a touch of anxiety. It’s loud, it’s bustling, people are hangry, some are just hanging around, and it is typically associated with an exit to the mall, so people are always coming and going. As a mom, it makes me nervous.
We stood at the entrance, trying to figure out what to eat. I held my 2 two-year-old son on one hip and had my 4-year-old daughter placed in front of my husband and me. My husband was the designated food order person, and because of COVID restrictions, seating was limited. My two kids and I ventured to find a table.
Like any two-year-old, my son was starting to exert his independence and general big boy-ness. When we came to a table along the main pathway with three chairs and a high chair, I was prepared for a protest. Surprisingly (and later, luckily), he declared he wanted to sit in the high chair. While waiting for my husband, we sat there playing “I Spy” and taking silly pictures with my phone.
My husband brought our food, we ate, and while we were finishing up, my daughter wanted to play with her new stuffed toy. She took it from the bag and started dancing around with it.
My food court anxiety kicked in. My mind began to fill with thoughts of how easy it would be for someone to walk by, grab her arm, and head out the exit door. I also didn’t want her to be in the way of people. I asked her to take a seat, and she obliged.
Our good day then took a turn.
I was gathering our bags while my husband was clearing trash from the table. I heard my husband loudly say, “ Hey man, what the…?!”
As he said this, I turned my head with a smile on my face, thinking he saw someone he knew. I turned to a maskless face, smiling and staring me straight in the eyes. This unfamiliar face was standing behind my 2-year-old son seated in the high chair. I followed his arms down to my son’s rib cage. Dirty hands were wrapped around my baby’s ribs. As I looked back up with a shocked face, he was gone. He took off running towards the mall shops.
My son sat there shocked. Frozen. I sat there shocked and frozen, looking around to see if anyone else saw what had just happened. I looked at my husband. He had stood up with our trash. I pulled my daughter between myself and the high chair, just rubbing her back. Another person came up asking us if our son was just touched.
My two-year-old still sat frozen in his chair. I rubbed his back, asking, “ Buddy, are you okay?”
He burst into tears. Not knowing what could happen next, I kept him in the high chair, just hugging him, reassuring him I was there, and it was going to be okay.
While we had the kids calm, my adrenaline was rushing. My inner self was taking off her earrings and pulling her hair up. I was ready to throw down.
As we walked back towards the mall shops, I saw him sitting at a table. This time with his hood drawn up and mask on. His eyes were locked on us. I never broke eye contact, with the full intention of confronting him, causing a scene, letting all the rage in my body out.
We paused to let people pass in front of us. The pause was long enough to snap to rational thoughts (or a higher power stepping in).
It was me, my husband, and two kids. If I were to confront him, that leaves my husband with two kids. What if this guy goes crazy and starts hitting me? What if he was just a decoy to a larger child kidnapping plot? I didn’t know what kind of crazy this guy was, and with my two young children in tow, I didn’t want to find out. We continued to the escalator upstairs. We never broke eye contact.
His face seared in my brain.
When we got upstairs, my son began to complain that he was hurt. When asked where he pointed to where he was grabbed, we lifted his shirt, and he had red marks on both sides. My heart broke as his lip was trembling, and he repeated, “The guy grabbed me. The guy hurt me. The guy scared me.”
Still in shock, we took a lap around the upstairs, and when we passed the security office, we went in. The girl at the desk knew who he was and said he was a known nuisance. She had also said they had had problems with him that day harassing people, but because no one filed a complaint, there wasn’t much they could do. We filed a complaint, and the police were called.
As calmly and unemotionally as I could, I recounted the situation to the officer. She had asked if we wanted to press charges. Now, my knowledge of the judicial system is all credited to Law and Order: SVU. This question threw me off. I’m used to Olivia Benson coming in and saving the day. I needed this officer to be my Benson. Again, I froze, stammering out an, “I don’t know, maybe?” They then escorted him off the mall premises, and the mall put a ban in place.
We came home, and something still didn’t feel right. I posted our story on a community Facebook page and called my mom. Everyone was urging us to go to the police station and press charges. By now, it was coming up on bedtime, so we pressed pause to give our kids some normalcy and routine.
The next day, we went to the police station to file an official report. The officers shared with us that he had stated he only approached our son because he thought he was choking. I stared at the officer blankly. She said, “Yeah, we didn’t buy it either.” She had me write down anything and everything I could remember that day, saying she would work to charge him with whatever she could. We submitted the report, and a warrant for his arrest was issued.
The next few weeks were an emotional and mental struggle.
At random times throughout the day, my two-year-old son would recount what happened in pretty accurate detail. While playing with my phone, he came across the pictures I had taken that day. That was enough to trigger him to tell me what happened. I recorded that conversation and forwarded it to the police. When I mentioned to my daughter that we would be grabbing lunch, my son came running in from another room yelling, “NO! We can’t go to lunch. The guy will grab me again.”
I cried so much during those first few weeks. Even now, seven months later, I cry when thinking about it.
Bedtime was the hardest. I held him a little longer and tighter. I rocked him, looking at his peaceful sleeping face. The “what ifs” began circling. What if he succeeded in taking him? Would my son have been fed? Would he have been yelled at? Would he have been allowed to go to the bathroom, or would he have to sit in his soiled pants? Would he have been hit or abused in some way? And on and on. I cried so much while putting him to sleep those first few weeks and months.
It was about a month, or so later, a friend forwarded an article from the CT Post asking if the story was about us. It was then that we learned the name of this man.
My nightmare now had a name.
He was arrested about a week after our meeting. Again, at the mall in the food court. Several witnesses had reported he had his hands down his pants while looking at young children. He was charged with Breach of Peace because there was no video evidence.
I was relieved he was caught. But as I Googled and learned more about his history, I became furious all over again. This man had brought rage and a fight I never knew I had. The court process would take months.
I was waking up with panic attacks. My son was (and is) still not sleeping through the night. We changed the way we shop. We changed the stores we went to. I stopped taking my kids to playgrounds. As much as I needed alone time, I would panic the whole time they were with my husband. I didn’t (and on some level, still don’t) trust anyone to keep my kids safe.
In our case, he was charged with two misdemeanors and one felony. I laughed at the victim advocate and prosecutor when they told me they felt good with pleading it down to two misdemeanors and two years probation…all with him getting out the day of court. They tried to make me feel better by saying the judge was open to extending probation to three years and that I should consider the time he has already served (the six months he spent in jail while waiting for trial). I remember telling the victim advocate, “I’m waiting for the part where he’s actually held accountable.”
In a phone conversation with the prosecutor, I was told this was the best he could do because the defendant has some mental health issues (despite being declared competent to stand trial).
There was no consideration of the victim’s mental health or the overall impact this has had on our lives.
During our virtual court, my husband sat next to me. My heart was racing. What I was about to say was the most confrontational I would be in my life. And it was to a judge, on the record. I had to face the man that changed our lives. It was too much. I felt like I was going to vomit but also needed a shot of whiskey.
I read my three-page statement updating the court on how this event is still affecting us while also letting the judge, prosecutor, and everyone involved know how they have failed. Then I watched the screen. I sat there looking at this man that has been haunting my dreams. He was calm; he paid attention, he listened. He was human.
The judge sentenced him with the sentence that I was told but gave the felony charge back. He was now a convicted felon.
Even though he would still be getting out of jail that day, I still felt a sense of victory. He’s a convicted felon. He has rights that have been taken from him. That is a label he will now have to carry the rest of his life, just like we will feel the effects the rest of our lives.
I feel a sense of closure now that this is over, but I still don’t feel any safer in public. What I wanted the court to know was that this man is not the only threat to me. Through his actions, he has made everyone I come in contact with a threat. And it will remain like that for some time.
As hard as it is, I want to share my story. I need to share my story. I need other parents and caregivers to hear this. I need them to know that we were a family doing everything right, which still happened to us. I am grateful it didn’t turn out much worse. I have a new sense of empathy for families that experienced the worse.