At first, Santana Renee Adams was hailed as a hero. Using her sharp wits and a concealed weapon, the 24-year-old had narrowly saved her young child from the clutches of a menacing stranger, at least in the eyes of many online commenters.
It all started last Monday, when police in Barboursville, West Virginia, US, wrote on Facebook that a woman had called the US emergency number 911 and told dispatchers that a strange man had tried to grab her 5-year-old daughter while she was shopping at a local mall. The woman, later identified in court records as Adams, told them that she had scared the stranger away by pulling out her gun. When officers showed up on the scene a short time later, they spotted a man by the food court who matched the description she had given them, police wrote. He was promptly arrested.
Hundreds of people reacted to the post, praising the young mother's vigilance and quick thinking, while warning others to be on the lookout for would-be human traffickers at the suburban West Virginia mall. "This mom more than likely saved her daughter from being kidnapped," read one typical response. "Thank God she was prepared."
But less than 24 hours after Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan, 54, of Alexandria, Egypt, was booked into jail on felony attempted abduction charges, the panic-inducing story had completely fallen apart.
After officers returned to the mall on Tuesday morning and found no witnesses who were able to corroborate her account, Adams admitted that "the more she thought about it, the more she realised it might have been a cultural misunderstanding and that the suspect might have just been patting her daughter on the head and smiling," police wrote in an update that was posted to Facebook that day. By Thursday, prosecutors had dropped all charges against Zayan, an engineer in town working on a contract job, who had gone to Old Navy that day to shop for clothes for his own daughter.
Ultimately, they found no evidence that he had even patted the 5-year-old girl on the head. On Friday, Adams was criminally charged for falsely reporting an emergency, the Herald-Dispatch reported. Officials have speculated that breathless tales about attempted child abductions on social media, which have a tendency of going viral despite the lack of evidence behind them, may be to blame.
"A lot of time, a lot of this is fuelled by social media accounts that are baseless, and everybody commenting on that," Barboursville Police Sgt. Anthony Jividen told reporters on Tuesday. In his 30 years with the department, he added, no actual kidnappings or child abductions had been reported in the village of Barboursville, which is home to just over 4000 people.
Zayan wept when he saw his co-workers for the first time after being freed from jail, WSAZ reported. He was released on a reduced bond on Tuesday after Adams recanted her story, and fully exonerated two days later, when prosecutors finished reviewing all the evidence and concluded that they had no basis to charge him with a crime.
"Things weren't adding up," Cabell County Prosecuting Attorney Sean "Corky" Hammers told the station on Thursday.
According to court records obtained by the Herald-Dispatch, Adams initially told police that a man who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent had tried to drag her daughter out of the store by her hair. In a written statement, she claimed that she had pulled out her 9mm Smith & Wesson Shield from its leather holster and pointed it at him, ready to open fire. Zayan had rushed out of the store, she said. She hurried out, too, only to later spot him coming toward her again as she walked through the mall.
But security cameras captured no evidence that Zayan had interacted with Adams or her children at all, and officials said that none of the seven Old Navy employees who were inside the store at the time witnessed the alarming scenario that she had described to police. According to the criminal complaint, surveillance footage showed that Adams calmly exited the store about 15 minutes after she first arrived. Zayan left about 35 seconds later, walking in the opposite direction and never looking in her direction.
At a news conference on Thursday, Zayan said that not only had he never had any interaction with Adams and her daughter, he didn't even know who they were or what they looked like, and wouldn't recognise them if they were standing right in front of him. He thanked officers for getting to the bottom of what had really happened, and said that he hoped to return to West Virginia again.
"I cannot imagine being in a foreign country, and being falsely accused of something, and having the police come and take me and put me in a jail," his public defender, Michelle Protzman, told reporters. She said that she was working to get the charge expunged from Zayan's record so that he wouldn't have problems entering or exiting the United States in the future, according to the Herald-Dispatch.
While Adams's motive for allegedly making up a story about a stranger remains unclear, Barboursville Police Detective Greg Lucas told the paper on Thursday that false rumours about attempted abductions on social media could have played a role.
"I can't say that she had any kind of agenda or what her agenda was, but it still was very, very bad to hurt this man and upset our entire community like it did," he added.
Stories in which a parent claims to have narrowly averted an attempted abduction in a public place have a tendency to go viral on Facebook, attracting thousands of encouraging comments, Reason's Lenore Skenazy noted on Sunday. Typically, they include impassioned warnings about sex trafficking rings, but little to no proof of any wrongdoing or suspicious behaviour that would corroborate such claims.
"The evidence is usually something like, 'I saw a guy staring at my baby.' Or, 'I saw the couple in one aisle and then I went down a different aisle and there they were again,' or, 'I looked outside and there was a van with its door open!'" Skenazy wrote. She noted that the head of the Crimes Against Children Research Centre, a nonprofit that studies child abduction and other crimes targeting minors, has said that they are not aware of any cases where a child was snatched from his or her parents in a public setting and then forced into sex work.
The fact that Zayan was visiting from Egypt was viewed as particularly suspicious by some residents. "Really fishy that this man from Egypt was at the Huntington Mall in Barboursville WV," one commenter wrote on the police department's Facebook page on Tuesday morning, after his name was released to the public but before Adams recanted her accusations. "Has to be more to the story. People get trained with your firearm. Get your CCW and always carry!!" Another woman, deeming the incident to be "so very scary," asked, "Why is he here?"
Adams was arraigned Friday on charges of falsely reporting an emergency, a misdemeanour which carries a potential fine and penalty of six months in jail, local media outlets reported. She did not respond to questions from reporters gathered outside the courthouse, but appeared to defend herself in a statement sent to WCHS-TV on Thursday.
"I'm thankful I was prepared to protect my daughter regarding a situation that could have gone worse," she told the station.