A woman charged with stealing a car and kidnapping two young children who were inside was sentenced to more than a decade in state prison Monday.
A judge sentenced Leslie Saenz to 13 years in prison nearly a year after she jumped into a running car parked outside an Encanto beauty supply store and drove off toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
An 8-year-old girl and her toddler brother were in the car -- their father had left it running with the AC on while he ran into the store -- and were able to alert authorities of their whereabouts before Saenz crossed into Tijuana.
Saenz pleaded guilty to two counts of kidnapping in April 2018. Several members of her family spoke at Monday's hearing and pleaded for a lesser sentence, saying the incident was the result of her drug addiction.
"We beg that you please give her the minimum sentence," Saenz' cousin Isela Barios said. "She has never been convicted of any crime. She comes from a lovely family, however, drugs took her to a dark place, and she became a drug addict. She abandoned her family, her job and became homeless.”
In a letter written to the judge, Saenz said she thought the car was empty. She said she wasn't in the right state of mind at the time, and has a history of mental problems and blackouts.
"I’m relieved to know that no one is hurt, I apologize to the family for putting them in this situation," her letter read.
Prosecutors said Saenz scoped out the vehicle before jumping in and driving off.
A witness honked his horn to alert the children's father, Rodney Cole, to what just happened. Cole raced outside and saw his car being driven away.
The father gave chase on foot, but according to the prosecutor Saenz ran a red light, started driving erratically and took off on the freeway.
Cole's daughter told prosecutors she was banging on the car window “to get people’s attention so they would call the police," and testified that Saenz threatened to crash the car into a freeway wall if she didn’t stop.
Soon the girl stopped seeing cars, and that’s when she said she got out her phone and called 911.
While on the phone with a dispatcher, the little girl said she didn't know where she was exactly but that she was seeing freeway signs that said Mexico.
“The lady threatened to drive into the freeway wall again,” explained the girl.
“How did that make you feel?” asked the prosecutor.
“Very scared. So, I gave her the phone,” she said.
The dispatcher was able to ping the location of the girl's cellphone and officers gathered they were on the freeway headed south.
Saenz and the kids made it all the way to the San Ysidro Port of Entry before they were spotted by police.
Cole told NBC 7 in a previous interview that she made it to the secondary inspection area where officers could see the children in the back seat mouthing "help me."
Border Patrol agents removed Saenz and police officers and deputies took her into custody.
A protective order was issued against Saenz to keep her out of contact with the victims and their family. She will no be eligible for parole.