On Monday, a 10-year-old girl reported to police that a man was following her in an SUV and taking pictures and video of her from the moment she left home to catch her school bus in Palm Coast’s F-Section. The story led to an investigation by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. Once reported on Tuesday and Wednesday, the story caught wide attention in local media and led to alerts and calls for the public’s help to locate the suspicious man.
But it was all a lie: the girl had made it up, the sheriff’s office concluded Thursday. Cops aren’t calling it a hoax, which may have entailed more malicious intent, only that “we believe it did not occur,” in the words of Jim Troiano, the sheriff’s chief spokesman.
The girl, a student at Old Kings Elementary school–she had claimed that the man would follow her school bus all the way to school–will not face charges.
Making a false report to police is a crime, a first-degree misdemeanor, though in this case, Troiano said, “she didn’t give us information about a crime, she gave us info about a suspicious person.”
The girl’s report to police had been detailed enough to include the sort of flourishes that seemed to give the account credibility: the girl knew the man was taking pictures, she told police, because the flash inside his car would go off (though given ambient light of morning a flash is unlikely to go off, thus tipping off investigators that the detail was amiss).
The girl claimed that others at the bus stop were also photographed, that the students on the bus would talk about it on the way to school, and–in a political flourish fit for a season of lies and the liars who make them–she said the SUV boasted a Hillary Clinton sticker. (The girl lives in a household where both adults are registered Republicans, though in point of fact, 70 percent of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or entirely false, compared to 28 percent for Clinton).
The girl, who is white, also claimed to a school resource deputy that the alleged suspicious man was black.
On Wednesday, a deputy who investigated the case reported: “I parked down the street from the bus stop on Forest Hill Drive. I did not observe anything matching the description of the person or vehicle that was given. I stopped and spoke with [the 10-year-old girl] at the bus stop and she told me that she did not see the male or vehicle this morning. I also made contact with several parents and they all stated they are at the bus stop every morning waiting for the bus and they have not seen anyone or anything suspicious in the past few days.”
By then, the story of the suspicious man was all over local media. At about 1 p.m. the deputy spoke with the girl’s mother. She told the deputy that she’d spoken with her daughter the previous evening “and her story changed several times and that she believes her daughter is lying.” The girl’s mother told the cop that she’d “have a long talk with her when she returns from school this evening.” The deputy said he’d do the same.
The same afternoon, the sheriff’s office picked up another report, this one from a 13-year-old girl whose bus stop is at Forest Hill and Frontier Drive, down the street from where the other incident was alleged to have occurred. The girl, according to an incident report, “believes the vehicle is a Silver Chevrolet Silverado and had a male driver who was wearing a black jacket and a hat. The subject turned onto Forest Hill from Frontier Dr and slowly drove by the bus stop toward Friar Way. As he drove by it appeared as if he was attempting to hide his face but was looking out of the vehicle. She did not see him take any pictures.” The girl recalled a Florida license plate and noticeable scratches on the tailgate, but no Clinton sticker.
The sheriff’s office today issued the following:
Although these incidents did not occur, we do not want to discourage anyone from reporting suspicious activity, as we take all reports seriously. This was, however, an opportunity to talk about what to do when confronted by suspicious people. Deputies urge parents to talk to their children about what to do when approached by a stranger. The following tips can assist you in educating your child:
1. Never talk to strangers or get into their vehicles.
2. When approached by a stranger, tell the stranger in a loud voice that you are not allowed to talk to them and instruct the child to immediately leave the area and contact a family member, school official or crossing guard, law enforcement officer, or enter a business that is occupied (fire station, restaurant etc.).
3. Remember, strangers are not always dirty or suspicious looking. Anyone the child does not know should be considered a stranger.
4. Develop a password with your child, so in the event that you have to send someone to pick up the child, they will know to expect the password.
If you see something suspicious in Flagler County, say something by calling 911 immediately. If you have information about any crime in Flagler County, please call the FCSO at (386) 313-4911, or if you want to remain anonymous, call Crime Stoppers of Northeast Florida at 1-888-277-8477 and be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.