Crime

Police: Mom fought valiantly against man who kidnapped 8-year-old daughter

Fort Worth residents celebrate safe return of 8-year-old kidnapped

Fort Worth residents celebrated the safe return of Salem Sabatka, an 8-year-old who was kidnapped Saturday, May 18, 2019.
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Fort Worth residents celebrated the safe return of Salem Sabatka, an 8-year-old who was kidnapped Saturday, May 18, 2019.

In an instant, their sidewalk stroll turned violent.

A man forced her 8-year-old daughter from her side and into his car. But Rachel Sweet did not give up her little girl without a furious battle, police said.

Salem Sabatka’s mother grabbed a piece of jewelry from the assailant in what Fort Worth police said was a “valiant fight” with the man Saturday evening in the Ryan Place neighborhood of the city.

But, in the end, Sweet could not thwart the kidnapper and watched as he drove off with her daughter down a street in the central Fort Worth neighborhood specked with older homes and circles at its intersections. Hours later, two civilians helping the search effort by scanning parks and parking lots found the suspect’s car in a hotel lot and alerted police.

Police went into the hotel, breached a room’s door and found Salem inside. Michael Webb, 51, was arrested.

Much remained unclear Sunday about the kidnapping, including the time when the suspect arrived at a hotel room with Salem and the suspect’s motives.

“I can’t put myself into a kidnapper’s mind,” Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald said.

Webb was booked into the Tarrant County Jail on a charge of aggravated kidnapping just before 6 a.m. Sunday. Fitzgerald said prosecutors would likely file other charges against Webb. Bond has not yet been set.

Salem Sabatka was walking with her mother near Lowden Street and 6th Avenue just after 6:30 p.m. Saturday when Webb grabbed her and pulled her into his car, police said.

A video from a nearby porch security camera captured the back of the driver’s car speeding away. In the video, Salem’s mother could be heard screaming that her daughter was kidnapped.

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Salem was found safe about eight hours later — at about 2:30 a.m. — at the WoodSprings Suites hotel in Forest Hill.

Police said two people who attend a local church saw the suspect’s car and led police to the hotel where Salem was found. The church members saw the photo of the car on social media and drove around to help find the girl.

One of the men, Jeff King, said he decided to help because he is a parent himself and because he is a former high school classmate of Salem’s father.

“I feel like God allowed me to be a tool,” he said.

Salem was taken to a local hospital to be examined by doctors, but police said she appeared physically unharmed and she was with her parents Sunday night.

Police said Webb didn’t know Salem.

“As far as we know, he’s a transient,” Fitzgerald said. His last known address is listed in Tyler, records say.

Fitzgerald said the kidnapping did not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert to be sent to residents’ cellphones because while police had a photo of the suspect’s vehicle, they did not have a license plate number.

Amber Alert information was sent to the media.

After police said they activated an Amber Alert for Salem, people took to social media to complain that they never received an alert.

Fitzgerald said Fort Worth police would meet with other law enforcement authorities to discuss whether Amber Alert guidelines should be reviewed.

Police said members of the community spreading the word on social media helped bring Salem home safe.

“This comes from the heart of the Fort Worth Police Department. I want to thank all of our followers,” police spokesman Buddy Calzada said after the suspect was taken into custody. “We’re a great police department, but with you on our side, we’re able to be more effective. You guys were a huge asset to helping Salem get home safe.

“It’s taken a whole city behind us to make this happen.”

Reporter Kaley Johnson contributed to this report.

A video taken from a neighbor's surveillance system shows the car police suspect was involved in the kidnapping of an 8-year-old Fort Worth girl on Saturday evening. The grey car which makes a left turn is the suspected vehicle.

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.

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