A good Samaritan who tried to help a little girl find her father was mistaken for a kidnapper, beaten, and smeared on Facebook. According to The Washington Post, the man has since left the Florida town of Lakeland with his family, fearing for their safety and his own.
According to Lakeland police, the man was watching friends play softball at a local sports complex and overheard a conversation about a child that had gone missing nearby. So when he spotted a 2-year-old girl wandering alone, he thought she might need help and approached her, asking her where her parents were and eventually deducing that she had been separated from her father.
The little girl pointed to the playground and the man took her hand and began walking with her in that direction. As they passed men along the way he asked her if they were her father. At first the child replied no, but then she reportedly "began to become agitated" and tried to pull away from the man. Not willing to let the little girl run off alone, the man picked her up and continued toward the playground, still searching for her father.
Three men came up behind the man, one taking the little girl from his hands while the others hit him repeatedly in the face. The father of the little girl reportedly punched the man four or five times.
After speaking with all parties involved, including witnesses who had seen the man walking with the girl and heard him asking her if passersby were her father, responding law enforcement decided that it had all been a terrible mistake on the part of the little girl's family. This was no attempt at kidnapping a child, but an unfortunate misreading of an understandably complex situation.
"I thought he was trying to take my daughter," the little girl's father told News Channel 8. "I saw this man with my daughter in his hands walking toward the parking lot. What would you do? I wanted to kill him.”
While police considered the case closed and even presented the man with the option of pressing charges against his attackers, the girl's family was not finished. They took to social media, posting a picture of the man along with his Facebook page and business address in order to spread the word, labeling him a "child predator."
The Lakeland Police Department posted on Facebook in response to the escalation surrounding the incident, making very clear the details of the case and calling for an end to the attacks on the man.
"Accounts of this incident have circulated on social media with false information and speculation. Posting false information on Facebook could cause a defamation of character claim and those posting false information could be held liable. Be careful about what you post on social media so as not to victimize an innocent person. Before posting information on matters such as this, we encourage people to identify the source and the validity of such claims before sharing them."
The man told police that he would not press charges against the little girl's father for assault or defamation because he understood how the situation could be "perceived incorrectly" and the emotions losing a child can bring up, but he has chosen to leave the area until things hopefully settle down.
The essential take-away from a hard situation like this is to never jump to conclusions. This case shows that it's better to take the time to fully assess the situation before hurting a potentially innocent individual who is only trying to help. In this, at times, very dangerous world we need to know that we can rely on each other, and part of that means carefully giving the benefit of the doubt.