On June 23, 2017, Sonoma County courtroom 3 in Santa Rosa was filled to the brim with onlookers bearing red polka dot ribbons in support of a little girl who was briefly abducted in Santa Rosa late last year. This day marked the last of many the family were subjected to, in order to try and bring the kidnapper to justice.
It was on December 8, 2016, that a local mother had every parent’s nightmare realized when her 4-year old daughter was snatched from a Trader Joe’s store in Santa Rosa. Tina Szczepanek, 42, of Lake County grabbed the little girl as she was putting one of the children’s shopping carts away by the main entrance and ran out of the store with her in her arms. Fortunately, mother Lexie Pence had kept her eye on her daughter. She screamed and ran after the woman who had already advanced as far as the parking lot. Szczepanek put the child down after seeing the mother and fled. Due to quick thinking on the part of Trader Joe’s employees who had immediately called the police, she was quickly found and arrested.
“I can’t bear to think what would have happened, had I looked away for a second,” said Pence.
Under California Penal Code section 208(a), a conviction for kidnapping can result in up to 8 years in state prison. Moreover, if the victim was under the age of 14 at the time of the kidnapping, the perpetrator could face up to 11 years in state prison, with a minimum sentence of five years. Even an attempt to commit kidnapping is punishable to the same extent as the particular kidnapping offense involved. Since Szczepanek pleaded no contest, family and friends were horrified to learn at a court hearing a few months ago that Judge Dana Simonds was leaning towards giving Szczepanek five years of probation and one year in jail.
“Szczepanek needs to be held accountable for what she did, and probation simply is not justified,” said her father, John Pence.
At the sentencing hearing, parents John and Lexie Pence and Theresa Thomasson, the child’s grandmother, had a chance to share their impact statements with the court. Lexie Pence went first, delivering an emotional plea to the judge to bring her child’s kidnapper to justice – not just for her and her family’s sake, but to prevent a possible future kidnapping from occurring.
“The outcome could have been devastating,” said Pence. “Watching someone steal your child is not something you easily recover from. In just a few moments the defendant brought fear into the life of a child that may be with her forever.”
Lexie Pence went on to describe the ramifications the crime has had on her family, including depression and anxiety, having to attend multiple court dates requiring childcare and time off work for her husband, attending therapy sessions and worst of all, seeing her previously outgoing daughter suffer from nightmares, question her own mortality, and become withdrawn and fearful of public places.
Citing a history of mental illness including bipolar disorder, as well as childhood trauma, learning disabilities and substance abuse, Judge Dana Simonds sentenced Szczepanek to five years’ probation and one year of jail time amid murmurs of shock and disappointment by those in attendance in the courtroom. Especially since, with jail time already served and other credits, Szczepanek will most likely be released by this September. During the next couple of months, arrangements will be made for a probation transfer to Massachusetts where she has family and will first attend a residential treatment facility.
While the Pences are relieved that Szczepanek will be moved out of state, they nevertheless feel that the sentencing for attempting to abduct a child was much too lenient for the crime, especially given the defendant’s previous criminal history, primarily revolving around drug abuse. In addition, they stated that if mental health was a reason, putting a kidnapper back on the street does not solve the problem. Rather, a long-term mental institution would be in order to keep other children safe.
“People have mentioned that the defendant might suffer from a mental health issue,” said John Pence, father of the child. “She passed a mental health evaluation and was found fit to stand trial. Nothing else has been shown in court to document a mental health condition. That being said, even if there is mental health history, probation is still not the answer.”
Lexie Pence believes that for the sake of the safety of all children, full consequences should have been given, and an example should have been set that there is zero tolerance when a crime is committed against a child.
“There is definitely no excuse for an adult who preys upon someone as vulnerable as a child,” said Pence. “If mental heath is an issue then all the more reason that this person should not be released to the streets. In that case, constant supervision is needed and a facility is necessary. If the issue of mental illness causes her to commit violent crimes then it clearly needs to be managed with a hands on approach rather then trauma to our family.”