The story is so outrageous, it seems unbelievable: A mother walking down a street on a sunny day with her 7- and 4-year-old daughters can only look on in horror as a man pulls up in his car, grabs the older girl, throws her in the trunk and speeds off.
When it was confirmed that this actually happened on a Sacramento street on Saturday, I admit to doubting it was a random act.
The perpetrator had to be known to the distraught mother – despite her adamant assurances to the contrary – because that is so often the case in crimes involving children.
Weren't our worst fears realized when the 12-year-old brother of 8-year-old Leila Fowler was arrested in connection with her fatal stabbing by Calaveras County authorities over the weekend?
But in this case, battle-tested Sacramento County sheriff's deputies said no. This was not an inside job, retribution for another crime, a custody dispute or some seedy vendetta.
"This was a worst-case scenario," said Jason Ramos, spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. "We think this was a random act. The mom wasn't negligent. I wish we could say this was a reminder to do this or that, but I can't really call the mom out at all."
I called the mom on Tuesday and though I normally use full names in this column, her request to be identified by her first name only was granted because, "the man is still out there."
Her name is Gabriella, and she is from the Mexican state of Chiapas. She has lived in Sacramento for several years and is very humble and had to be talked into chatting for a few moments.
Gabriella was returning from taking her girls on a shoe-shopping trip on Saturday when a car sped up on the 5300 block of 47th Avenue near Stockton Boulevard, she said. "He grabbed my daughter and threw her in the trunk," she said. "I was screaming. I just kept screaming and he drove away."
A witness ran up to her and called police. She was frantic. "I tried to run, but there was no way I would catch the car," she said.
Gabriella felt a wound that is still fresh: "I thought I would never see my daughter again."
That the child jumped from the moving car a short distance away and was returned safely is miraculous. Witnesses corroborate the abduction and the girl's escape, deputies said.
The suspect is still at large, but the girl is safe and she went back to school on Monday.
Like her daughter, Gabriella said she has suffered nightmares, sadness and anxiety since the kidnapping. But she said she feels blessed. "Thank God," she said Tuesday.
Sometimes people truly are victimized for no reason. Gabriella's story is a reminder to guard against easy assumptions – and that it could happen to any of us.