Washington Runaway, 9, Steals Car, Sneaks Onto Flight to Texas

A 9-year-old boy who didn't like his suburban Tacoma home stole a car, got caught, then ran away again and flew to San Antonio with a plane change in Phoenix before he was arrested, authorities said.

Investigators and Southwest Airlines officials were trying to determine how Semaj Booker, who was trying to get to his grandfather in Texas, got through airport security and boarded the flights.

"The only thing I have to offer on that is that were looking into it," Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said.

Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Jennifer Peppin said travelers must have a boarding pass to go through airport security checkpoints, although adults can use an escort pass to bring young children or seniors to a flight gate.

"That young man would've had to have a boarding pass," Peppin said.

The 80-pound, 4-foot-9 fourth grader, held in juvenile detention Tuesday night in San Antonio, was "incredibly motivated to get to Texas," Lakewood police Lt. David B. Guttu said. "He doesn't want to live in Washington state."

The boy's mother, Sakinah Booker, said he dislikes the neighborhood where the family lives and is afraid of a sex offender who lives nearby.

"He does not like it here at all," she said.

She said she was told the boy wound up in San Antonio rather than Dallas, his intended destination, because he boarded the wrong plane in Phoenix. She also said she had hoped to move her four sons back to Dallas soon, but Semaj grew tired of waiting.

Gutto said the diminutive boy's odyssey began Sunday when he stole an Acura that was left running outside a neighbor's house, only to be spotted by police near the interchange of Interstate 5 and State Route 512.

Police pursued young Booker on Highway 512 at 80 to 90 mph until he took an exit and the engine blew, after which the car went over a curb and coasted into a tree.

He refused to come out of the car, so officers broke a window to unlock a door and immediately recognized him as a frequent runaway and car thief, Gutto said. Last month he also crashed a stolen car before being caught by police in Tacoma, and more recently he was caught in Seattle in a stolen car that had run out of gas, his mother said.

She believes he learned to drive from playing video games on a PlayStation.

Because of those earlier episodes, she said, she had told police not to bring him home if he got into more trouble, but after the latest episode officials at Remann Hall, Pierce County's juvenile detention center, refused to admit him, partly because of his young age.

"Putting a 9-year-old in our facility with our population is not a good thing," said Shelly Maluo, the county's juvenile court administrator.

As a result, he was taken home again, but by 6 a.m. Monday he again had been reported missing. The next day, Guttu said, police got a call from a juvenile lockup in San Antonio saying, "we've got your runaway."

He said the boy was arrested as he got off a Southwest plane from Phoenix, but it was unclear how police in San Antonio learned he was on the flight. The boy initially gave a false name before admitting his true identity, Gutto said.

Deputy Prosecutor Fred C. Wist said Tuesday he had not decided whether to file charges in the car theft and police chase Sunday.

"It is very seldom that we see kids this young," he said.