An 8-year-old girl who, along with her toddler brother, was inside of a car when it was stolen in Encanto was able to discretely call 911 from the back seat and help police arrest her captor before they crossed the border into Mexico, police said.
The father of the two children said he left them in his car with the engine on and air conditioning running while he ran into a beauty supply store on Imperial Avenue at about 12:30 p.m., according to the San Diego Police Department (SDPD).
Rodney Cole told NBC 7 he was only making a quick stop to purchase some hair ties for his daughter.
A witness to the robbery and kidnapping said a woman was bouncing a basketball near the car when she dropped it suddenly and peered into Cole's car, presumably to see if the keys were still inside, and jumped in.
The witness said he started honking his horn to draw Cole's attention.
“He saw me honking and I pointed at his car and he just started running to chase his car," the witness said. He said he wanted to do more, but was feeding his own kid in his passenger seat when the kidnapping transpired.
Cole chased his car on foot as the woman turned out of the strip mall onto Euclid Avenue, but couldn't keep up.
"I almost caught the car but she started driving erratically," Cole said with his children at his side. "She got to the light and ran the light and made a left, and I was just stuck in the middle of the street crying and bawling. I didn't know what to do, these are my babies."
Within minutes of Cole's 911 first call, his daughter was able to place a discrete emergency call on her cell phone from the back seat. She told dispatchers she and her three-year-old brother had been kidnapped.
Her call was picked up by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department (SDSO). She told them that she didn't know exactly where she was but she was seeing freeway signs that said Mexico.
Based on that intel, deputies presumed that the car was headed south toward the border.
Eight-year-old Malayha Cole said that when her captor found out she was on the phone, she threatened her and her brother Jackson.
"I said 'If you don't take us back to our daddy, I'll call police.' Then I called 911," Malayha said. "And then she threatened me and said 'If you don't give me the phone, I'll drive in circles and crash into this car.'"
The SDSO alerted United States Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and local police departments to be on the lookout for Cole's gold Hyundai sedan and CBP officers immediately began searching cars waiting to cross into Mexico.
Cole told NBC 7 that CBP officers located the car in the secondary inspection area at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The officers could see the children in the back seat mouthing “help me.” The woman was removed from the car and taken into custody.
"I'm just thankful for God and I'm very, very thankful for the San Diego Police Department and every other law enforcement agency that joined in and found my kids within an hour," Cole said, breaking down into tears.
"Each five minutes that went by seemed like a day," he added.
Cole said his daughter has had a cell phone since she was five years old.
SDPD Captain Jerry Hara used the incident as a reminder to Cole, and parents across the country, to never leave kids in unattended vehicles for any length of time.
Cole said he grew up in the neighborhood and has never felt unsafe, but from now on he'll be heeding Captain Hara's advice.
“This is a harrowing situation for any parent and terrifying for the children involved,” said Pete Flores, Director of Field Operations for the San Diego CBP Field Office. “We appreciate our partnership with the San Diego Police Department for getting us this information so our officers could react quickly and stop the car and driver before they made it any further. It may be a part of the job, but being able to help safely reunite these children with their father is especially rewarding.”
Police have not established a motive for the kidnapping and said the Cole family did not know the woman who took off with Malayha and Jackson.