A man in Florida was beaten and smeared on social media as being a child predator after he tried to help reunite a toddler with her parents.
On Saturday, police in Lakeland responded to a disturbance call at a sports complex after a two-year-old wandered away from her parents during a softball game.
According to a police statement, a citizen who was at the game visiting some friends saw the child walking alone and he believed the child to be lost.
“The citizen attempted to ask the girl where her parents were and walked with her in hopes she could point them out,” Lakeland Police Department said in a statement. “At least one independent witness stated they observed the citizen walking with the child trying to help find her parents.”
Parents of the missing child were alerted by bystanders that a man “was walking towards a playground and feared that the citizen was attempting to kidnap the child.”
According to NBC News affiliate WFLA, the child’s father and two other men approached the citizen and punched him several times as another man grabbed the child.
“I thought he was trying to take my daughter,” the child’s father told the news station. “I saw this man with my daughter in his hands walking toward the parking lot. What would you do? I wanted to kill him.”
Speaking with FOX 13 News, Sgt. Gary Gross said the Good Samaritan did the right thing.
“He saw that the child was in danger. She was wandering off and he did the right thing by going to her, getting her attention, trying to find the parents,” Gross said. “We had an independent eyewitness that saw him walking around, asking, ‘Is this your parents? Is that your father?’”
Citing a police incident report, local media said the beaten man declined to seek charges against the father because he understood how the incident could be “perceived incorrectly.” The police report also noted the child’s father was “increasingly agitated” by the fact investigators would not file charges against the citizen who found the child.
“So, I guess in Lakeland, you can kidnap a child and get away with it,” the father was quoted as saying in the police report.
However, police are standing behind their investigation.
“It’s understandable how parents can possibly be upset in a situation involving a lost child,” police said in a statement. “However, this incident truly involved a Good Samaritan trying to assist a lost child finding their parents.”
WFLA reported after the incident that the Good Samaritan’s photo and Facebook page were shared on social media, calling the man a child predator. Police warned on Facebook the sharing of misinformation can lead to charges.
“Accounts of this incident have circulated on social media with false information and speculation. Posting false information on Facebook could cause a defamation of character claim and those posting false information could be held liable,” reads the statement. “Be careful about what you post on social media so as not to victimize an innocent person. Before posting information on matters such as this, we encourage people to identify the source and the validity of such claims before sharing them.”
The warning prompted those who shared the false information to retract their posts.
“I was one of those who shared post thinking it was helpful, now I feel awful that it clearly was not!” Brianna Cruz admitted on Lakeland Police Department’s Facebook page. “Definitely teaches me to double check sources before spreading! All in all I’m happy this little girl is safe though. Don’t think the guy should have gotten the treatment he did though.”
“I was particularly interested in the post because this guy lives two houses away from me,” James Jordan wrote. “I too initially shared the post, but immediately thought to myself – what if it’s not true? So I called PCSO and they told me it wasn’t their case and transferred me to LPD.”