Associated Press Writer
When a stranger told Gizelle Pierre that a man had walked out of the store with her daughter, the horrified mother ran outside to find 6-foot, 3-inch Edwin McFarlane holding the 3-year-old’s hand.
At 270 pounds, with size 17 shoes, the hulking “man” was only 14. Edwin, who is black, says he was just trying to help the lost Hispanic girl find her mom.
Within minutes, he was surrounded by deputies at the Orlando store and arrested for “false imprisonment.” The charges were dropped a few weeks later, but the case could follow Edwin forever.
Edwin was vilified on the Internet as a kidnapper and pedophile, with some blog posts based on leaked official documents.
The sheriff acknowledged his deputies made mistakes in the case. The sheriff’s office later demoted a high-ranking official responsible for the leak but the case has spurred concerns about snap verdicts in the court of public opinion that may linger forever on the Internet.
“He has to live with this for the rest of his life,” said his attorney, Natalie Jackson. “What is out there is out there.”
Now, anyone with Internet access can find the June 10 surveillance video that shows Edwin and his mother entering the Burlington Coat Factory. He heads off alone to get a shopping cart. He starts back to his mother, when he stops, looks around and then walks to the girl. He bends down, speaks to her, then leads her out of the store.
Edwin says she seemed lost and he took her to two women near the entrance who looked like they were waiting for someone. They didn’t recognize her so he took the girl back toward the store.
Meanwhile, Pierre had been standing at the checkout with her three children. She turned away for a moment and, when she turned back, her 3-year-old daughter was gone.
After Pierre and her daughter were reunited, deputies tried to question the little girl but she was too young to understand, according to an investigative report.
Pierre told them Edwin had explained to her, “I was helping her find her mommy.”
Deputies arrested Edwin after Pierre said she wanted to press charges. The deputies said in their report that he had “secretly confined the victim against her will” and had no permission to take her from the store.
If convicted of false imprisonment, he would have to register as a sexual predator.
A phone number for Pierre was disconnected and the AP was unable to reach her to ask for further comment.
News of the arrest was splashed all over local TV and in the Orlando newspaper.
Although Edward has no criminal record, some bloggers labeled him a pedophile. One of them wondered what Edwin did to the girl in the three minutes not captured on surveillance video. “I never saw a tape of (serial killer) Ted Bundy raping and murdering but he was still executed,” said the blogger, identified online only as dan.
The charges were dropped about three weeks later. Edwin’s lawyer is trying to have his record expunged.
But the accusations will follow the teen as long as they remain on the Internet.
“We can’t sacrifice privacy and due process laws in the pursuit of safety,” said Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “The durability of Internet information is a challenge for anyone who becomes involved in the justice system.”
Edwin’s mother believes that her son, who has always been “off the growth charts,” was arrested because of his size, his race or both.
He couldn’t play tackle football in junior high because he was too big. Kids at school like to tease the shy teen with the hulking stature just to see his reaction.
“(Adults) expect so much more of him because of his size. They don’t realize that he’s a child, just in a big body,” said Mildred Roman, a 34-year-old single mother of two.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings, who is black, said the deputies had probable cause to arrest Edwin. He declined to comment to The Associated Press but previously told the Orlando Sentinel “we made some mistakes during this.”
Edwin, who is now 15, answers some questions with a childlike simplicity. He missed playing outside when he was on house arrest. The case made him realize some people can be really mean. But, in other moments, he speaks with mature clarity.
“Before, I didn’t realize how society was,” Edwin said in a telephone interview. “I’m being watched wherever I go. I still act the same but I’ve just got to watch what I do when I go outside or go to the store so they won’t get the wrong impression.”
He knows how easily impressions can be formed.
Someone in the sheriff’s office leaked details about the case. A TV station got a copy of the investigators’ report, which should have been protected because it involves a juvenile. A blogger claiming to be the child of a sheriff’s employee posted details of the case online.
“My dad told me a few other things that make me personally convinced that Edwin has some real issues and, at the very least, needs serious counseling,” the blogger wrote.
It’s another phenomenon of the Internet age: Something an officer tells his child used to remain in the school yard; now it goes viral.
The sheriff’s office demoted Maj. Frank Fabrizio to captain and suspended him for 120 hours for the leak.
The Orange County state attorney’s office discussed the boy’s school record in a public court hearing, bringing up details that should have been private. Legal experts say it was a misuse of the records, which are protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Typically, such records are only given to a judge to help with sentencing after a youth has been convicted.
The records showed nearly 20 disciplinary measures, mostly for scrapes with other kids about his size. In one case he gave a male classmate the finger. A TV station labeled it a “sexually charged” incident.
Watching his school history splashed about in the public “was humiliating,” Edwin said.
A local columnist who took up the boy’s cause accused officials of conducting an “evil smear campaign” against Edwin.
The state attorney’s office did not return repeated telephone calls or an e-mail seeking comment.
The sheriff’s office also released Edwin’s interrogation recently. In it, sex crime investigators questioned Edwin about intimate sexual details.
Supporters have rallied around him, including Pittsburgh Steelers Max Starks, who recently invited the teen to attend football camp in Orlando.
But Edwin’s family worries what will happen when school starts this month. On a recent visit to a sandwich restaurant, diners wouldn’t stop staring at them.
Will they see the giant man-child with the gentle heart, his mother wonders, or the Internet gossip that called him names she cringes to remember?