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Store scrutinized for failing to help child in van

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 morning, Mattone said, he had not yet decided whether Bed Bath & Beyond could be charged for failing to assist Randy and Nancy Belcher, a couple that 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 re-train 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, Patel 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.

Peters said the boy was not injured.

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

Lexington police Officer Tommy Puckett was among several officers who responded to the call on Saturday. After hearing the Belchers' story, Puckett said he was shocked.

"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 is against company policy to get involved with anything that happens in the company 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 little boy sleeping in a car seat inside the van on an 85-degree day. The van, parked outside the store on Nicholasville Road, had its windows shut and was not running.

She said the sun was shining 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."

The Belchers, who were standing nearby, told Bowe that they had asked the store to phone police. They said store clerks refused, saying it was against its policy to get involved with parking-lot incidents, Bowe said.

The couple called police on their own. Bowe also called 911.

Bowe said they talked about breaking a window to save the child, but police arrived before they had to do that.

She said the child spent at least 20 to 30 minutes in the van.

According to a police report, the child, Ryan Patel, 3, awakened only after he was shaken by police.

Bowe said she can't believe it's the store's policy not to help a child locked in a car.

"That seemed so absurd to me," she said.

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."