HOUSTON — Terron Henry was busily preparing food for his Jamaican restaurant Friday morning when his assistant told him an SUV was mysteriously parked behind his Houston business.
The restaurant owner walked to the vehicle along a concrete path behind the strip mall where his restaurant is located and peeked into a window. There he saw a toddler strapped to a car seat, bundled in a gray sweat shirt and apparently sleeping.
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It turned out to be 17-month-old Evan Montgomery Lamar Miller, the subject of a frantic search that began 14 hours earlier when the vehicle – with the baby inside – was stolen from a Walmart parking lot about three blocks away.
“I got kids myself so when I saw the baby I was actually frightened. I just wanted to make sure the baby was OK,” said Henry, 38, who got the boy after a 911 operator told him it was fine to do so.
Henry brought the toddler into the restaurant, wrapped him in a shirt and waited for paramedics, who arrived about five minutes later. The boy was taken to Texas Children’s Hospital, where he was treated and released.
Houston police were still looking Friday evening for the suspect who stole the vehicle. Police believe he probably left the SUV shortly after he stole it and Evan was in the vehicle overnight.
The drama unfolded at about 5:45 p.m. Thursday when Evan’s mother, Niah O’Neil, ran into the Walmart to get money from an ATM, leaving her Jeep running with Evan and his 7-year-old cousin inside.
In the few minutes O’Neil was in the store, the suspect climbed into the SUV, and her 7-year-old niece jumped out – screaming.
“As I’m running out, I saw my niece running toward me screaming my name and my car going down the road. I dropped everything and ran toward the car,” O’Neil told Houston television station KHOU.
Several telephone listings for O’Neil were not valid, and a woman who told reporters she was an attorney for the family did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Houston police Capt. David Gott said before the suspect stole the SUV, he briefly entered the store, apparently saw the SUV running and walked to it. He talked with the girl, asking her where her mother was and attempted to grab her before she got away. The girl had tried taking the toddler, her cousin, out of the SUV but was unsuccessful.
Gott said investigators were still trying to determine whether the suspect was only after the vehicle or whether he might be a child predator because he tried to grab the girl.
Cases where vehicles are stolen with a child inside are rare, Gott said. Usually when thieves realize a child is inside, they drop the car off somewhere in a public place where the child can be found or take the child out before speeding away, he said.
But in this case, the suspect knew a child was inside the vehicle and still took it and then proceeded to hide it in a location that was not easily seen, Gott said.
“The impression is it was an abduction. You assume the car was not the primary target,” Gott said. “We may find out once we get him in custody that he’ll say, `I just wanted that car.’ But it doesn’t appear so and that’s really one reason why we need to get him in custody as soon as possible.”
As the search continued Thursday night and temperatures reached abnormal lows, police posted on Twitter pictures of the toddler and details of an Amber Alert asking Houstonians to look out for the boy.
Gott said between 30 and 40 patrol cars, a police helicopter and 20 detectives searched the area all night for the boy and the SUV but had no luck.
Around 7 a.m. Friday morning, Henry showed up as usual for work at his Cool Runnings Jamaican Grill on the city’s southwest edge. He and his assistant were preparing for a regular day serving up jerk chicken and ox tail stew at the casual restaurant tucked next to an auto repair shop and a Laundromat.
As usual, Henry’s assistant stepped out behind the restaurant to a wooded area for a morning smoke.
That’s when he saw the car and ran back in to get Henry. It was unusual, they agreed, for a car to be wedged in an area that is more of a walkway than a parking spot.
When he found the toddler and saw that his eyes were closed, Henry feared the worst.
“I thought he was dead because it was so cold outside,” he said. Temperatures early Friday had dipped to just below freezing.
But after Henry grabbed Evan, the toddler opened his eyes. Inside the restaurant, the boy was mostly silent, but Henry noticed a few tears running down his cheeks.
“I still feel relieved right now the baby was okay,” Henry, still visibly shaken, said as he accepted congratulations from customers at his restaurant.
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