A Florida dad who called 911 to report that his 3-year-old daughter was taken from his driveway Monday morning — leading authorities on a massive statewide search — lied about a major detail, say police.
On Monday, Lester Mejia and his daughter, Madeline Mejia, of Apopka, made headlines when the two were reunited after he said she’d been kidnapped that morning, and that he had no idea who would take her or why.
Now, police say, it turns out that two of the four people taken into custody when the child was located are her mother, Tania Fortin Duarte, 19, and her boyfriend, Kevin Olmeda-Velis, 19, outlets including WFTV, WTXL and ClickOrlando report.
Mejia has custody of the child, but Fortin-Duarte does not.
But Mejia feared he would never see Madeline again when he called police, which is why he initially lied to authorities, say police, WFTV reports.
At first, Mejia told authorities he put the toddler in her car seat and heard her scream when he dashed back into his house to get his keys.
Running back outside, he told police he saw a black Honda with temporary Texas plates pulling away from his house – with his daughter inside.
He said he jumped into his car and followed the Honda onto the Florida Turnpike northbound to I-75 for miles before he lost sight of the car, say police.
“It was anguish not knowing what was happening to my daughter,” Mejia said Monday night, local station WFTV reports.
Realizing he’d forgotten his cell phone, Mejia rushed back home and called police.
Immediately, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement issued an Amber Alert.
FDLE agents took to a helicopter to scour the highways from the air and at noon, located the Honda traveling on I-10 in Leon County near Tallahassee almost 200 miles away, CNN reports.
The agents radioed troopers on the ground who pulled over the Honda, WFTV reports.
Inside was little Madeline, who “was scared,” Lt. Kim Montes said, WFTV reports.
The entire situation was “very traumatic” for the little girl, she said.
Now police say in a news release to WFTV that Mejia later admitted he was at work when Fortin Duarte took the child.
He said that when he called 911 and said the child’s mother had taken her, the dispatcher told him “no crime had been committed,” WFTV reports.
“Given that information, Mr. Mejia was scared he would not see his daughter again, so he provided the abduction story in hopes it would assist in recovering his daughter,” police said in a statement to WFTV.
“Although Mr. Mejia was not forthcoming with the information he provided to the Apopka Police Department, he did have lawful custody of his daughter and Ms. Duarte unlawfully removed Madeline from his custody,” the statement says.
Four suspects – three men and one woman – were taken into custody, local station WESH reports.
Fortin Duarte and Olmeda-Velis were arrested and charged with interference with custody.
The other two unidentified suspects were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
It is unclear whether they have retained attorneys who can speak on their behalf or if they have entered pleas. They remain held without bond in Leon County.
Fortin Duarte lives out of state.
Later that night, clutching the toys the troopers had given her, Madeline was reunited with her father.
“Thank you, my Jesus, for putting back my baby,” her grateful father told reporters.
It is unclear if Mejia will face charges for lying to police.