Florida police officers are warning people to double check what they post and share online after a man trying to help a lost child was vilified online as a presumed kidnapper when the story got twisted.
Police in Lakeland said it all began when a 2-year-old girl wandered away from her parents during a softball game at the Southwest Sports Complex on Saturday, Fox 13 reported.
A Good Samaritan, who was at the complex with a Polk Sherriff’s Office deputy, found the wandering toddler but she couldn’t tell him where her parents were.
“He saw that the child was in danger. She was wandering off and he did the right thing by going to her, getting her attention, trying to find the parents,” Lakeland Police Sgt. Gary Gross told the station. “We had an independent eyewitness that saw him walking around, asking, ‘Is this your parents? Is that your father?’”
Police said that as the man walked around the crowd with the girls in his arms, her parents were alerted, fearing that he was attempting to kidnap the child.
Her father, Austin Strickland, assumed the worst and attacked the man, punching him a half-dozen times.
“You’re damn right [I punched him]. I wanted to kill the man,” he told Fox 13. “You just don’t take someone else’s kid and walk to the parking lot or walk in that direction.”
Soon after, the story leaked online – but posts were blaming the man for allegedly trying to kidnap the little girl. Within hours, the man’s name, picture – his kids’ pictures – and where he worked were shared online with warnings to be on the lookout for him.
Lakeland police quickly tried to combat the spread of false information and issued a warning on Facebook: “Be careful about what you post on social media so as to not victimize an innocent person.”
Police added, “It’s understandable how parents can possibly be upset in a situation involving a lost child. However, this incident truly involved a Good Samaritan trying to assist a lost child finding their parents.”
The warning seemed to work and many of the posts vilifying the man were taken down.
Lakeland police said the Good Samaritan would be well within his rights to press charges against Strickland, but didn’t because he understands the father was frantic over his little going missing.