First the good news: a 5-year-old Philadelphia girl who had gone missing was found alive early Tuesday after being abducted nearly 24 hours earlier from her school. The child was discovered, scared and cold, by a Good Samaritan who heard her cries.
Now the bad news: She was taken by a stranger, dressed in body-covering Muslim-style burqa, who signed her out of her West Philadelphia elementary school Monday morning only giving her name as “Tiffany” and claiming to be the child’s mother.
Philadelphia police are trying to piece together how a stranger could walk into a school and take the child. As in many places, school district officials say that anyone picking up a child is required to show identification and be listed as a verified parent or guardian, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. In this case, that policy appears to have been violated. The staff at Bryant Elementary did not discover the girl had been taken until 3 p.m. that day. Surveillance cameras showed her being led off by the stranger on foot. On Monday, the girl’s mother appeared on television explaining that she also wears the traditional Muslim garb.
Police believe that a second woman and a man were also involved in abducting the child, according to the Daily News. Rather than follow instructions to go to the school’s main office, the girl’s abductor went directly to the classroom, which may indicate that she knew where the child would be.
Capt. John Darby of the Philadelphia Police Special Victims Unit told the Daily News that the woman walked into the girl’s classroom and asked for her by name, leading authorities to believe she was targeted. (TIME has opted not to use the child’s name because she is a minor and a possible victim of sexual assault.) “This was not a random act,” he said. Police said she was taken by the woman to a home where there was also an adult male. Her clothes were removed and she was hidden under a bed. An Amber Alert was issued, but cancelled once the girl was found.
The girl was found about 4:40 a.m. Tuesday at a playground in Upper Darby, Pa., by Nelson Mandela Myers, a sanitation worker headed to work in nearby Norristown who heard her cries and discovered the child near a jungle gym, wearing only a tank top, Upper Darby Police Supt. Michael Chitwood told the Daily News. “She said, ‘I ran away, I ran away from the people who took me.’ ”
Myers, 27, covered the girl with his coat and called 911, he said at a press conference on Tuesday. “I just wanted to do the same thing someone would have done for my child. I have a 5-year-old daughter.
“When I picked her up, she just reminded me of my daughter so much because she was the same size.” He will receive the $10,000 reward offered for her safe return.
It is unclear how the girl escaped her abductors, but other accounts suggest they may have dropped her off at the playground. She was taken to Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital to be treated for cold weather exposure. There were no apparent signs of injury, but she was being examined for physical and sexual assault. “It had to be an animal to do something like this, to abduct a child and leave her in the park with just a t-shirt,” Chitwood said.
An investigation is ongoing and Philadelphia police have offered a $10,000 reward for information on the girl’s abduction. Meanwhile her uncle, Sharif Ali, believes her abductor played on her naïveté as a 5-year-old. “I believe that the person told her that she was going to her mother,” he said. “I’m pretty sure [she] knew her. Maybe not her face, but it led her to leave… you’d have to feel comfortable to leave with anybody.”