Forest Hill, TX – A Forest Hill police sergeant has been fired for allegedly disregarding a tip involving the whereabouts of a kidnapped eight-year-old girl.
The tip was called in by two Good Samaritans who were out searching for a vehicle associated with a local Amber Alert, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
“The two callers were obviously concerned,” Forest Hill Police Chief Dan Dennis told the paper on Thursday. “They had located what was correctly the suspect’s vehicle. He basically discounted that. He looked at the suspect vehicle as unrelated and essentially tried to talk them out of it being the right vehicle.”
Eight-year-old Salem Sabatka was out walking with her mother in the 2900-block of 6th Avenue at approximately 6:40 p.m. on May 18, when a man drove up next to them, KTVT reported.
He then snatched Salem away from her mother, and forced her into the car, according to NBC News.
The girl's mother fought with the kidnapper, and managed to grab onto a piece of his jewelry before he threw her from the vehicle, police said.
A portion of the altercation was captured by a neighbor’s doorbell camera.
The neighbor heard the distraught mother’s screams, and rushed to help her as the kidnapper sped away with Salem.
Police issued an Amber Alert during the eight-hour search for the little girl, and photos of the suspect’s Ford Five Hundred spread across social media.
“My friend texted me and said Riz’s daughter was kidnapped,” Jeff King told CBS News. “I know the father.”
King reached out to other friends who were already out searching for Salem, then headed over to the crime scene, CNN reported.
He said one of the detectives handling the case told him to keep an eye out for the little girl and the suspect’s vehicle at area hotels, apartment, and parks, King explained.
Shortly after midnight on May 19, a desk clerk at the WoodSpring Suites called 911 to report that she had just received information that someone spotted a man at the hotel that matched the description of the kidnapper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
The suspect, later identified as 51-year-old Michael Webb, had a little girl with him.
When Forest Hill Police Sergeant Richardson Wolfe and other officers arrived at the hotel, the clerk directed them to Webb’s room.
After approximately seven minutes of knocking, Webb finally began talking to them through the door, but initially refused to open it.
The officers did not have probable cause to force entry into the room, so they continued speaking with Webb through the door for another eight minutes in an attempt to obtain his consent to search, Chief Dennis explained.
“So essentially, they talked their way into the room,” the chief said. “They spend something like 17 minutes trying to talk their way into that room. They wanted in that room. They really wanted to find that girl. They really pushed the bounds of consent to get into that room, quite frankly.”
Sgt. Wolfe told Webb that he just wanted “to look where a four-foot-five child could be,” and showed him a photo of Salem.
“He said, ‘I’m looking for her. If you’ll just let me in, I don’t care about your drugs or guns or whatever else you’re doing in there, I just want to find the child,’” Chief Dennis explained.
But even though Webb allowed the officers into his room, his willingness to allow them to search quickly began to waver.
“As they got in the room, he’s telling them, ‘I really don’t want you here,’” Chief Dennis said. “That makes our consent pretty tenuous.”
Sgt. Wolfe quickly searched through the hotel room, looking beneath the bed, behind the shower curtain, and inside cabinets and a refrigerator.
“Essentially every piece in the room where you would readily think you could hide a child was open, visible,” the chief noted. “He looked everywhere he thought she could be.”
With Webb’s consent wavering, the sergeant wrapped up the search approximately 90 seconds after he walked into the room.
“I have to measure these folks against the performance of a reasonable officer,” Chief Dennis explained. “With the consent being as tenuous as it was, he’s basically trying to maintain that consent.”
He mistakenly concluded that Salem was not in the room.
Investigators later learned that Webb had hidden her in a basket beneath a pile of clothes.
Two officers outside the hotel room searched for the suspect’s vehicle using a photo provided to them by Sgt. Wolfe, Chief Dennis said.
The officers mistakenly believed that the car in the photograph – a gray Ford Five Hundred – was a Buick or a Volvo, and left the parking lot without finding it.
Investigators later learned that Webb’s vehicle was sitting in the hotel parking lot at the time.
King and another friend were also searching the area, and happened to spot the alleged kidnapper’s vehicle in the hotel parking lot at approximately 2 a.m., CBS News reported.
"This adrenaline was rushing through my veins,” King recalled. “I could barely stand still, me and the person I was with.”
They placed a call to 911, which was answered by a Fort Worth Police Department (FWPD) dispatcher, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
The dispatcher notified Forest Hill police, and also dispatched Fort Worth officers after offering their assistance.
Sgt. Wolfe went back to the hotel, but didn’t believe that the vehicle the Good Samaritans spotted had anything to do with Webb, Chief Dennis said.
“Fort Worth showed up and took that same evidence and, within minutes, was breaching the door,” the chief added.
Sgt. Wolfe stood by outside as Fort Worth police forced entry.
“I can tell you his reaction through the entire incident did not meet my expectations,” Chief Dennis said. “In my opinion, he seemed more concerned about being in trouble than anything else.”
Salem was taken to a local hospital, and has since been reunited with her family, CNN reported.
King said that he and his friends were elated when they realized their efforts had paid off.
“We were just hugging each other and he and I were like, beside ourselves,” he told CBS News.
“They’re our heroes tonight, I’ll tell you that,” FWPD spokesman Buddy Calzada said of those who went out searching for Salem, according to CNN.
Calzada said that the attack appears to have been random.
Webb, who is not related to Salem, has been charged with first-degree felony aggravated kidnapping, and additional charges are expected, NBC News reported.
Chief Dennis said that Sgt. Wolfe’s handling of the initial search was not “unreasonable,” but that he still wishes it “had been done differently,” according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
He said that the reason he placed the seven-year veteran-of-the-force on “indefinite suspension” was due to how he handled the report about the suspect vehicle being located.
Sgt. Wolfe’s attorney has declined to comment on the suspension other than to say she has submitted appeal paperwork.
According to civil service rules, an indefinite suspension is the equivalent of being fired, KTVT reported.
“If we have to get drug through the mud to assure that this criminal case goes forward and is successful, we’ll get drug through the mud,” Chief Dennis said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We will take it on the chin every day of the week because the reputation of my department is not as important as a successful prosecution in this case.”
Salem’s abduction will also change the way Forest Hill police handle incidents that originate in other jurisdictions.
“What we will do in the future at that point is, in every case, will contact the originating agency,” Chief Dennis explained. “The Fort Worth Police Department had a lot of information we didn’t have. If we had contacted them, that might have made a difference.”