For more than six hours, a toddler wandered through a neighbor’s house, playing with toys he found, while hundreds of police officers, firefighters and neighbors searched up and down the streets of his subdivision for him.
By 3:15 p.m., 3-year-old Michael Stepien had likely grown scared but didn’t know how to get out of the house he wandered into.
That’s when Kaleb Tucker returned from Clark-Pleasant Middle School. He opened his front door and found the little boy crying in his home. Kaleb immediately recognized who Michael was from his pajamas, which he had seen described on Facebook alerts about the missing child. Kaleb ran back out the door to get police.
Michael, scared by a stranger coming in the house, started to run away. He reached the neighbors’ backyard before Greenwood resident Tiffany MacFarlane scooped him up to take him to the police, who had been looking for him since they got a panicked call from the Stepien family at about 10:45 a.m.
“I heard him cry,” MacFarlane said. “He knew where he was going. He was pointing to his house. But I think he just couldn’t get out of the (house).”
Moments later, family members ran from their home to be reunited with their child. Hundreds of police officers, firefighters and neighbors had searched the neighborhood, a pond, their backyards and even under vehicles for hours, fearing the worst.
Finally, it was over. Police are calling it a rare happy ending.
“There’s no words to describe how grateful we are to everybody that helped us,” mother Jessica Stepien said.
Michael, who will turn 4 next month, was likely shocked to see hundreds of people frantically running in his neighborhood. The youngster was checked out by Greenwood Fire Department medics, who deemed the boy healthy and happy.
More than 50 police officers, 50 firefighters and 100 neighbors searched for the boy, who went missing from his home in the Sweetgrass subdivision north of Worthsville Road between 9 and 9:30 a.m. Monday. Divers searched a retention pond. Officials had ruled out abduction but could not find the boy. Police dogs and officers looked under vehicles. Neighbors knocked on doors, asking fellow residents to check their backyards and sheds. A description and a photo of the child were released by the Greenwood Police Department, asking residents to call 911 if they saw him.
“He’s a willful, smart, inquisitive child and is not afraid,” his father, Brian Stepien, said.
His father was home but was in another room when his son slipped away. His son didn’t go far. The home he walked into was the next street over from his own backyard.
“I just didn’t believe that he could undo a door bolt. He’s never been able to do that yet,” Stepien said. “And we now know that he can undo deadbolts.”
Michael walked into his neighbor’s house through an unlocked door and found toys to play with. Police did not think he went anywhere else before he was found, Greenwood Fire Chief James Sipes said. In the excitement after he was found, Michael hadn’t complained of being tired or hungry.
Before he was found in his neighbor’s house, Michael had heard the helicopters flying overhead and the sirens from police and fire vehicles, Sipes said. But he had no idea that the commotion outside was about him.
“He doesn’t even understand what the hubbub is about,” Stepien said.
Word spread about Michael’s disappearance through social media. Seven police departments brought police dogs, and agencies from Indianapolis to Trafalgar were looking through open fields, backyards, under cars and in nearby subdivisions.
By 3 p.m., about 35 residents from Sweetgrass subdivision and Villages of Grassy Creek gathered to start a search through the neighboring subdivisions.
“If it was my 3-year-old, I would want everybody possible out here,” said Greenwood resident Jessica West, who was part of the initial search party. “I have three (children), and God forbid something happen, I would want everyone (looking).”
Just 15 minutes after dozens of volunteers were knocking on doors to ask if anyone had seen Michael, Clark-Pleasant school buses dropped off students at their homes. Kaleb, an eighth-grader, had heard about Michael’s disappearance at school. Students and teachers were talking about the missing child throughout the day, Kaleb said.
When Kaleb opened his front door, he heard crying. He saw a small boy standing by his stairway just inside the front door.
“I was afraid for my life that it wasn’t actually him, and that I could have been mistaking him for another kid,” Kaleb said. “As soon as I opened the door, I tried to identify him.”
Kaleb knew by the Paw Patrol pajamas that it must be the child who police were looking for.
Once Michael was returned to his parents, he noticed the dozens of police, fire, EMS and dive team vehicles that were lining the streets. He didn’t know why they were all there but wanted to visit the fire station someday to see firefighters in action.
Sipes promised that Michael can visit the fire station whenever he is ready — as long as his parents are in tow.