The woman suspected of trying to drive a stolen car into Mexico with an 8-year-old girl and her toddler brother in the back seat faced a judge for the first time Friday.
Leslie Esparanza Saenz, 26, was arraigned in South Bay Court and plead not guilty to six felony charges, including kidnapping to commit a robbery, vehicle theft and threatening to cause death.
Saenz scoped out a vehicle and may have known there were kids inside when she jumped in a gold sedan parked outside a beauty supply store on Imperial Avenue in Encanto on Monday, according to the San Diego Police Department (SDPD).
Rodney Cole said he left his two kids in his car with the engine on and air conditioning running while he ran into the store to buy hair supplies for his daughter.
A witness to the robbery and kidnapping said Saenz 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.
She then 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. The woman turned out of the strip mall onto Euclid Avenue and Cole 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 first 911 call, his daughter, Malayha Cole, 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.
The 8-year-old's 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.
Deputy District Attorney Meredith Pro said that deputies were able to ping the location of the girl's call and found out the car was headed south on Interstate 5.
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.'"
That threat earned Saenz one felony count fo trying to dissuade a witness and one count of making a criminal threat, according to Pro
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."
Saenz 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.
Police have not established a motive for the kidnapping and said the Cole family did not know Saenz.
Saenz is being held without bail and a protective order was issued by the judge for the Cole children to prevent Saenz from trying to contacting them or their family in any form.
Her court appearance was postponed twice because she was in the medical ward, but officials did not confirm why.