"I said 'If you don't take us back to our daddy, I'll call police,' " Malayha Cole later recounted of the dramatic incident

By Steve Helling
April 11, 2018 09:11 PM

A quick-thinking 8-year-old California girl called 911 earlier this week after a woman allegedly carjacked her family’s vehicle, with her and and her toddler brother inside, and tried to take them to Mexico.

Rodney Cole went to the store on Monday afternoon to buy his daughter, Malayha, some hair ties, leaving her outside the store in the back seat with her brother. He left his car running and the air conditioner on.

Shortly after he got out, however, a woman allegedly jumped into the still-running vehicle and sped off, according to a statement from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office.

Cole tells local TV station KNSD that he tried chasing after the car on foot, but was unable to catch it.

“I almost caught [them] but she started driving erratically,” Cole said. “She got to the light and ran the light and made a left, and I was just stuck in the middle of the street crying and bawling. I didn’t know what to do. These are my babies.”

But Malayha had an idea.

“I said ‘If you don’t take us back to our daddy, I’ll call police,’ ” she later told the station in an interview with her father. “And then she threatened me and said ‘If you don’t give me the phone, I’ll drive in circles and crash into this car.’ ”

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Undaunted, Malayha called 911 from the back seat and told the operator that she and her 3-year-old brother had been kidnapped. She told the dispatcher that she saw freeway signs that said Mexico.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Office says that they put dozens of officers on high alert. They also alerted the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Officers immediately began searching cars that were crossing into Mexico.

An hour later, authorities found the vehicle at the San Ysidro border checkpoint. They arrested Leslie Esparanza Saenz, 26. PEOPLE confirms that she has been charged with four felonies, including carjacking, kidnapping to commit a robbery, vehicle theft and threatening to cause death.

She has not yet entered a plea and is being held without bond. Arrest records do not indicate whether she has hired an attorney who could comment on her behalf.

Authorities in San Diego are using Malayha’s case to remind parents not to leave their children unattended in a vehicle. Cole told the station that he grew up in the neighborhood and thought it was safe.

“I’m just thankful for God and I’m very, very thankful for the San Diego Police Department and every other law enforcement agency that joined in and found my kids within an hour,” he said through tears. “Each five minutes that went by seemed like a day.”