Punishment for child kidnap attempt angers Santa Rosa parents

SANTA ROSA (KTVU) -- A family whose daughter was nearly abducted from a Trader Joe's store three months ago spoke out Tuesday, the first time the girl's relatives have commented publicly since the attempted kidnapping.

John and Lexie Pence told KTVU that they decided to come forward now because they believe the judge presiding over the case is being too lenient on the suspect.

Lexie Pence said her 4-year-old daughter, known to the public as "Sarah," hasn't been the same since Dec. 8, 2016, the day of the kidnapping attempt.

Mother and daughter were shopping at the Trader Joe's on Santa Rosa Avenue. While the mother was at the checkout stand, her daughter was just a few feet away, returning a child shopping cart.

Lexie said she noticed a woman she'd never seen before, looking at her daughter. She said she didn't think much of it until the woman snatched Sarah.

"[I] saw the woman stoop down and when she came up she had my daughter in her arms right at the front door and was headed out the front door with her," Lexie said.

The woman said she was yelling and crying as she ran into the parking lot after her daughter. The suspect would later be identified as Tina Szcezepanek, 41.

"When I told her to give me back my daughter and she put her down and put her hands up and she said, 'I'll respect you, I'll respect you.'"

Lexie said that Santa Rosa police arrived within minutes and arrested Szcezepanek, who was booked on kidnapping charges.

The minimum sentence for felony kidnapping is five years. And Szcezepanek had pleaded no contest.

At the last court hearing, the Pences learned that Judge Dana Simonds was leaning towards giving Szcezepanek five years of probation and one year in jail.

"Probation? I mean how can that be justified? It's mind boggling to think of what could have happened," John Pence said. Szcezepanek "needs to be held accountable for what she did."

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch agreed, calling the judge's consideration of probation a "rush to judgement."

"It's every parent's nightmare to look up and see a complete stranger walking away with your child in their arms," Ravitch said. "I think it's outrageous when court decides to make an offer to somebody not having any information in front of them. The judge had not yet been provided with a report by the probation department nor any reports from medical professionals that could attest to any mental illness on the part of this woman."

Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped and killed 23 years ago in nearby Petaluma, is outraged by the decision as well. He founded the Klaas Kids Foundation to help parents who are in situations similar to the one facing the Pence family.

"I think this woman needs to do hard time, an example needs to be made of her and we have to remember what our priorities are," Klaas said.

The Pences say despite reports that Szcezepanek is a transient and suffers from mental illness, the woman appeared to be well kept and coherent.

"She knew she did something wrong, she was caught and she knew it," Lexie said.

The Pences say Sarah has not recovered from the kidnapping attempt. Her parents say the girl hides when the doorbell rings, is withdrawn and shy.

"She's a scared little girl," Lexie said. "She's a sassy little thing and she's very outgoing and she's very talkative and that's not her now."

A few days after the attempted kidnapping, Sarah grandmother bought her a Virgin Mary statue because the little girl admired its beauty.

"I keep her in my bed on a spot on the wood because she watches over me," the girl said.

"We're not even Catholic!" her mother said through laughter, adding that her daughter now sleeps with a pretend sword and shield that she claims protect her.

"She's scared in her own home," her mother said. "It's awful when the therapist says that your 4-year-old is depressed."

If Szcezepanek receives a year in jail with credit for time served, she could be released in early June since most convicted of crimes generally only serve half their actual sentence.

The woman's sentencing date is scheduled for April 25. The Pences and Marc Klaas said they plan to attend.

"It's bigger than just us it's for the safety of other children," Lexie said.

Friends of the Pences have started an online petition on change.org

"We need some justice (and) we need some closure," Lexie said. "Criminals need to understand you can't do this and get away with it. If she's on probation I believe she'll do it again."

By KTVU reporter Tara Moriarty.