A 45-year-old Kennewick man accused of impersonating a firefighter convinced two children to leave their locked car while their mother was inside a store, police said.
The children were not hurt, but Kennewick police called it a "potential tragic situation."
The incident began around 1:45 p.m. Saturday when a 34-year-old Kennewick woman let two children stay in the car while she went inside the Walmart store at 2720 S. Quillan St., said Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin.
The mother left her oldest son, a 13-year-old, to watch his 7-year-old brother. She took her 4-year-old daughter with her.
"The air conditioning was on. The doors were locked. They weren't sitting in a hot car," the mother told the Herald.
A man, later identified as Christopher S. Olson, approached the car, told the kids he was a firefighter and told them they should not be alone in the car, Lattin said.
He allegedly flashed his wallet as if he was showing identification and demanded the boys roll the window down, police said.
Olson reportedly told the boys their mother could be arrested for leaving them in the car and convinced the children to open the car doors so he could escort them inside the store. He grabbed the teen by the arm as he led them to the store.
The teen called his mother with his cellphone, and she met Olson with her children near the entrance of the store, Lattin said.
The mother said her youngest son was crying, and she saw Olson hug and kiss the boy's head.
Olson reportedly used his cellphone to videotape the boys in the car and as he walked with them toward the store. Olson was wearing a T-shirt that identified a fire department from the west side of the state, but Olson is not a firefighter, Lattin said.
The children's mother said she had been in the store for about 20 minutes but for the first 15 minutes, her parents were parked in their RV about four spots down from her car. When they left, she was headed to the checkout line, she said.
She said she took her kids from Olson, finished checking out and left. She said Olson was parked two spots away from her car and continued to record her with his phone as she loaded groceries into her car.
As she got more information from her sons about what happened, she also called a relative to see what she should do. She returned to the Walmart parking lot about 90 minutes later, saw Olson's car was still there and wrote down the license plate number.
Officers contacted Olson, who reportedly had consumed nine cans of Mike's Hard Lemonade inside his car and was intoxicated, police said.
Officers said he couldn't explain why he didn't call police if he was concerned about the boys' safety, except to say he didn't want police involved.
Olson was arrested and booked into the Benton County jail on suspicion of impersonating a public officer and fourth-degree assault.
"This is a good reminder to parents or caregivers to always have a plan established with your children on what to do if a stranger approaches them," Lattin said. "In this situation, it would have been best for the children to keep the doors locked and call 911 when the stranger tried to get them to open the car door."
Some questioned whether the mother should have left the boys in the car alone, but police officials said her actions were not illegal. It is, however, unlawful to leave children under 12 alone in the car while the adult goes into a tavern or place where they can consume alcohol.
-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org