It was raining when Danielle Brown got to the restaurant, so she decided it would be best to leave her 10-month-old daughter Zoe right where she was – sleeping in her car seat, all snug in her pink onesie and tiny black jacket.
The new mom left the car on to keep Zoe warm and dashed into D’bo’s Wings n’ Things to pick up her take-out order. As she hurried out minutes later, she stared in disbelief at her car, which she’d parked close to the front door. It was backing out of the parking space.
“Stop!” she screamed at the strange man behind the wheel and grabbed the passenger door, yanking it open. “My daughter’s in the car!”
But the man in the red hoodie slammed the door and took off, and Brown, her heart pounding, chased the car with the yellow “BABY ON BOARD” sign before it disappeared into the night. After the March 16, 2018 abduction, police issued an AMBER Alert with the car’s description, and it wasn’t long before motorists all over Memphis were looking for the 2016 black Honda Civic four-door sedan, tag number X30 00S – and Zoe.
When the car and Zoe weren’t recovered in the first hour, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings mobilized his entire police force. Officers, some off duty, worked through the night chasing leads all over the city, united in their mission: finding Zoe Jordan.
As the night wore on, Brown became increasingly distraught and blamed herself for being a “terrible mom” for leaving her infant daughter in the car. She had assumed, incorrectly, that since she had taken her car keys with her into the restaurant, Zoe would be safe for a few minutes. But the car was running; the carjacker didn’t need her keys.
The next morning, a Saturday, Memphis retiree George Nicholes, who served 32 years in the military, saw a story on the news about the AMBER Alert. Concerned about the missing child, Nicholes punched the car’s tag number into his contacts on his cellphone on the off chance he spotted the vehicle on the way to his daughter’s, not far from the restaurant.
It had been nearly 13 hours since the abduction, but Nicholes checked all the tags on Hondas that he could see from his vantage point in his truck. Suddenly, his heart quickened. One said X30 00S.
The car was parked at an odd angle on a residential street. He checked the tag again to make sure he was right, then immediately called 911. He wasn’t able to see inside the car and was told to sit tight in his truck.
Police arrived quickly, and Nicholes watched as an officer reached into the Honda Civic and pulled Zoe out of her car seat, touching off a spontaneous celebration of joy and tears. Nicholes was declared a hero, but he would have none of it. It was God who put him in the right place, at the right time, he said.
“I couldn’t wait to hold her again and kiss her and then tell her I’m sorry,” Brown said of going to the hospital where Zoe was taken as a precaution. “I’ve felt super guilty and just super emotional and just a lot, a lot of emotions.”
Rallings, the police director, said the community can’t thank Nicholes enough for taking the AMBER Alert seriously and getting involved. He said Zoe’s case should serve as a cautionary tale: Never leave a child unattended in a car.
Here at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children our analysis of nearly 554 non-family infant abductions showed that 11 percent occurred in the course of carjackings. In most of these cases, the carjacker didn’t realize there was a child in the backseat. They often abandoned the children once they realized they were not alone in the car. They wanted a car – not a baby.
Rallings equates AMBER Alerts to seatbelts, which many years ago were seen by the public as annoying. But, Rallings said, seatbelts save lives.
“So the AMBER Alert, you know, the notification may be annoying to some, but AMBER Alerts save lives,” Rallings said. “If you want to help save a life of an endangered child, then when you hear of an AMBER Alert going out, you need to stop what you’re doing and get involved. That’s what the AMBER Alert is all about. Law enforcement and the community working together to bring about a positive resolution of a very tense and uncertain situation.”
The idea for AMBER Alerts came after the tragic 1996 abduction of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted while riding her bike with her brother in Arlington, Texas. As she kicked and screamed, Amber was pushed into the cab of the man’s pickup. Her body was found five days later in a creek four miles away. Her killer has never been found.
Since AMBER Alerts were first used – 24 years ago this month – they have saved 977 abducted children, at least 61 of them from alerts over wireless phones. “National AMBER Alert Day” is observed each Jan. 13, the day Amber was abducted.
Nicholes has become close to Zoe and her mom and gave Zoe a present for her second birthday. He keeps photos of her in his cellphone. Brown is now a huge advocate for AMBER Alerts and pays close attention to every one she hears, going to the website to make sure she is armed with all available information.
“Normally, I’ll get an AMBER Alert, and I’ll be like, oh wow, and I just kinda, you know, push it to the side,” said Brown. “And since then, I’m looking at every AMBER Alert, and I’m making sure I pay attention….I know this helped me, and I want to be able to help somebody else.”
[Coming soon: A video interview with Zoe’s mom, Danielle Brown, by our own Angeline Hartmann.]