A shivering, barefoot toddler left alone in a car for more than five hours in near-freezing temperatures on the South Hill may be alive today thanks to the actions of a gas station clerk and Spokane police officers.
The boy’s father, 51-year-old Charles B. Fife of Spokane, is in custody and could face child abandonment charges in connection with Tuesday’s ordeal. Bail was set Wednesday at $2,500 pending the filing of formal charges.
Fife parked his car on Saxon Drive about 4:30 p.m., about two blocks south of Comstock Park, according to a neighbor, who saw him park but didn’t notice a child in the car. But when Fife arrived at the Conoco Station at 29th and Grand Boulevard about 8 p.m. – saying he had lost his car with his son it and needed to use the phone – he told the clerk that he parked it near Manito Park.
That clerk, who requested that her name not be used, said Fife told her that he left the car about an hour earlier.
“I couldn’t believe what he was saying,” she said.
She let him use the business’s phone to call a friend and overheard him say that it had been about two hours since he left the boy. The clerk stepped out of the store to call her husband to tell him about the suspicious person. When she re-entered, she said Fife was casually eating a piece of jerky at a table.
“I don’t know if he stole it,” she said.
The clerk insisted that he call police, but she said Fife made it clear that he didn’t want police involved.
He left the store after she yelled at him: “What’s wrong with you?”
Then she called police.
“I’m a Mom,” said the clerk who has worked at the Conoco station for seven years. “I got so angry thinking about that poor little boy – cold, alone and scared.”
Police searched for the man described by the clerk and found him about 8:30 p.m. a block away from Manito Park at Manito Boulvard and 25th Avenue.
The man told the officer that he couldn’t find his 1998 black Camaro with his son inside. He said he parked it while his son was sleeping and walked around the block to find a friend named Adam, but he was unable to provide details about where his friend lived, court records say. He also said he locked the car and had the keys but couldn’t find his keys when the officer asked about them.
After police were unable to find the Camaro near Manito Park, they expanded their search.
Officer Ron Van Tassel located the car with the boy inside a child seat around 9:45 p.m. According to court documents, the boy was wearing nothing but a diaper, pants and a T-shirt.
The car was unlocked and keys were in the ignition.
The boy was shivering, had bright red feet and did not respond to Van Tassel, court records say. His arms and legs were “ice cold” and his diaper was soaked through.
The temperature outside was 33 degrees.
Wendy Brill saw the Camaro park in front of her home about 4:30 p.m. but didn’t think much about it, assuming the driver was visiting a neighbor. Her husband and daughter also noticed the car later but never noticed anyone inside.
About 9:45 p.m., Van Tassel knocked on the Brills’ door carrying the boy. He asked if he could bring the boy inside to warm up. They gave the boy crackers and CapriSun.
The officer sat on the Brills stairs holding the boy in his lap while other officers and paramedics came to the scene.
Wendy Brill said Van Tassel was “super-amazing” with the boy.
“The police officer was very conforting,” she said.
The Brills said the boy didn’t say much and was calm while he was in their home. Wendy Brill’s daughter, Sammy Brill, said the boy was wearing only a white T-shirt and camoflage pants until they gave him a pair of her fuzzy socks to warm his feet.
The boy still was shivering 10 minutes after he was pulled from the car, court records say. He was taken to the hospital about a half hour after he was rescued from the car.
Once at the hospital, the boy kept pointing to his feet, saying “ow” and crying when they were touched, court records say.
Police spokeswoman Monique Cotton said the child was placed in protective custody with Child Protective Services.
Fife’s wife, Lisa Fife, was present at court and said Fife took his son out to the park after the two of them argued about finances.
“We get along so well I think it got him distraught,” she said, saying it spoke to his character that he chose to leave the situation instead of letting it escalate.
Lisa Fife said she and her husband aren’t very familiar with the South Hill, and suspected he may have been so upset from the argument that he forgot where he parked. She said he is a good father and shares custody amicably with the boy’s mother.
“I don’t know what this is going to do to him, not being able to see him,” she said, adding that Fife “lives for” his son.
Prosecutor Ed Hay said Fife has twelve previous felony convictions, including armed robbery and conspiracy to possess a controlled substance.
But Lisa Fife said in spite of his past, her husband has no drug or mental health issues.
After reviewing officer reports at Fife’s initial court appearance Wednesday, Judge Michael Price said it was “quite a bizarre” incident.
“It just makes no sense to me at all,” he said.
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