Store scrutinized for failing to help child in van

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comSeptember 9, 2008 

Prosecutors are reviewing state law to determine whether Bed Bath & Beyond should be charged for refusing to call police because a toddler was locked in a van in a Lexington parking lot.

First Assistant Fayette County Attorney Brian Mattone said he spent most of Sunday looking at Kentucky's laws dealing with the reporting of child abuse. As of Monday evening, Mattone said, he had not yet decided whether Bed Bath & Beyond could be charged for failing to assist Randy and Nancy Belcher, a Danville couple who had discovered a child locked inside a van in the parking lot on Nicholasville Road.

A manager at the store told the couple — and later, police — that it was the store's policy not to get involved in parking lot incidents.

But on Monday, an official at Bed Bath & Beyond's corporate headquarters in New Jersey said in a written statement that the store manager must have been confused about the company's policies.

"Be assured that, at Bed Bath & Beyond, we take matters such as these very seriously," said Hank Reinhart, vice president of customer service. "We train our associates for emergency situations. Unfortunately, this situation was not handled in the way we would have expected it to be handled. We are taking this opportunity to retrain our associates."

The child's mother, Tanuja R. Patel, was arraigned Monday in Fayette District Court. She pleaded not guilty to first-degree wanton endangerment. Patel's attorney, Fred Peters, said afterward that Patel thought she had left the van, a 2007 Honda Odyssey, running with the air conditioning on.

Peters said the level of her charge is "completely inappropriate." Peters said Patel is being charged at the same level as someone who fires a gun at someone. At most, he said, the charge should have been child endangerment.

Mattone disagreed. Considering how long the mother was in the store, and how quickly cars can heat up, "it is such a dangerous situation it obviously could have been much worse," he said.

Patel, 37, was released from the Fayette County Detention Center after posting a $5,000 cash bond. As a condition of the bond, she is not to have any contact with the child, 3-year-old Ryan Patel.

Peters said he is trying to get the conditions changed because the mother and child live in the same house.

A preliminary hearing for Tenuja Patel was scheduled for Sept. 26 in Fayette District Court.

Randy and Nancy Belcher were just getting out of their truck about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday when Nancy Belcher told her husband she thought there was a child in the van parked next to them. When the boy did not respond to several knocks on the window, they went into Bed Bath & Beyond and asked one of the clerks if they could use the public-address system to let customers know there was a child in a hot van.

The clerk called a manager who was less than helpful, Randy Belcher said Monday. "She said 'we don't deal with anything that goes on in our parking lot,'" Belcher said.

The manager also refused to phone the police or to let the Belchers use the store's phone to dial 911. Randy Belcher had a phone locked inside his truck, and he eventually used it to call the police.

Lexington police Officer Tommy Puckett was among several officers who responded to the call on Saturday. After hearing the Belchers' story, "I thought there must have been some kind of miscommunication," he said Monday. But when Puckett went into the store and talked to the manager, who would not give her last name, she said it was against company policy to get involved with anything that happens in the parking lot.

"I was absolutely shocked speechless. This is one of the most disturbing things I've seen since I've been a cop," said Puckett, an officer of nearly 35 years. "Morally, I just can't believe that you would not call. What if that was your child out there?"

Michelle Bowe, of Nicholasville, said she saw the boy sleeping in a car seat inside the van on an 80-degree day. The van had its windows shut and was not running.

She said the sun was directly on the boy, who was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and pants and was under a blanket.

"You could see the sweat on him," Bowe said. "I didn't know if he was breathing. You couldn't tell."

Bowe said they talked about breaking a window to save the child, but then police arrived. Officers used a small device to break the window after the boy did not respond to repeated taps on the window, Belcher said. Even after the officer got the boy out, he wouldn't wake, Belcher said.

"My heart just dropped to the ground," Belcher said. "My wife was crying, the other woman was crying."

Bowe and Belcher said the child had spent at least 20 to 30 minutes in the van.

According to a police report, Ryan awakened only after he was shaken by police. He was treated by paramedics and given fluids but was not taken to the hospital, witnesses said.

Reinhart said he knew of no Bed Bath & Beyond policy that would have prohibited the store manager from helping.

"We train our associates on how to respond to common emergency situations and we have no policies that should have impeded our ability to respond in this case," Reinhart said. "This situation was not handled the way we would have expected it to be handled."

Belcher said he was thankful that he and his wife and Bowe were there to help the boy. "I just want to thank the Lord that we were in the right place at the right time and that the boy is OK."

Bowe, a mother of four, said she has peeked into the back seats of cars ever since hearing about an incident in the news a few years ago.

"I just kind of look in car windows, to be honest with you," she said. "I mean, I have four children. When ... you're a mom, you're just pretty cautious."

Belcher said he and his wife had been going to buy something at the store on Saturday, but they decided to go home instead.

"I know we're not going to go back in there," he said.

Reach Beth Musgrave at (859) 231-3205 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3205.

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