On 4 June 2017, Facebook user Tianna Stipp shared a post cautioning others about an incident she purportedly experienced at the Coon Rapids Walmart in Minnesota:
You know those really long posts on Facebook that you just bypass thinking “oh yeah, that will never happen to me? ?” well, this is going to be one of those, but please do not just scroll on by..
Saturday after work Kalvin brought Levi to me at work in Coon Rapids, I needed to run to Walmart to pick up some essentials and so I took Levi and went to the Walmart right off of Round Lake Blvd, in Coon Rapids, MN. We walked in and I went immediately back to the baby section along the wall is car seats and then diapers. A gentleman stopped me and asked me if I could help him pick out a car seat for his daughter. I asked him how old she was and how much she weighed. He was looking at infant carriers and so I showed him the convertible car seats. He started asking me personal questions about Levi’s age, weight, where we live, if I am from around here, and whether or not his father and I were together. I was instantly turned off.
Stipp’s post was one of countless similar warnings in which a shopper, typically female, believes that she narrowly escaped the grasp of human traffickers in the course of an interaction with fellow shoppers in a retail environment.
Although the questions were perhaps bothersome and unwanted, nothing in particular set off alarm bells on first glance. According to Stipp, the man she encountered became increasingly engaged as she attempted to extricate herself from the conversation. Stipp speculated that her discomfort caused her child to become visibly fussy — at which point the man reportedly asked her if he could hold and comfort the boy:
As I started to walk away- he got frantic and asked me If I would put the car seat in his vehicle for him. I told him “I’m sorry I can’t do that.” I started to walk away again, and he began following me. He stopped me again when I got to the diapers and said “oh I have a 6 year old boy. What does he need?” I pointed to a seat and said “this will be fine.” He started asking me again to put them in his car and I denied again. I didn’t grab anything and walked to the sippy cups, looking all around for an associate. . I began to ignore his questions. Levi started to get fussy and I took him out of the cart and began to soothe him. I think he could tell I was uncomfortable because he wouldn’t calm down. The guy asked me to Hand him Levi..
I told him “no, thank you.” He became persistent and said “it’s ok. I will hold him for you. ” I told him “my son doesn’t like strangers. I think I am just going To take him home.” I began down the aisle in search for an associate and there was no one to be found. The gentleman was walking next to me and his phone rang. He had a very strong accent but the parts I could make out pushed me over the edge. I heard “yes. Yes. Meet me outside the car.” I looked down the garden center as I knew he would have to pay for his items and I could easily find an associate there. I started that way and he tried to walk straight out without paying for his items- he was stopped and, as he went back around to check out as he was still on his phone.
Stipp added that she summoned a Walmart greeter, and then fled the store. On advice she later received from family members, Stipp said she called the police to report the encounter:
I waved to the greeter at the door as If I knew him and whispered to him “I am afraid. This gentleman was very persistent on wanting to hold my child and get me to go to his car. I’m going to go this way. Please do not tell him where I went.” I pulled Levi close and ran as fast as I could across the front of the store and back into the store to the bathroom. I cried and pulled myself together for probably 5 minutes. Peeked out the door, seen a manager and told him what happened. Asked him to walk me to my car as I wanted to leave. I drove to CVS in Anoka, called Kalvin and told him what happened. Told him we were safe. But I was so scared. I had my first Anxiety attack in over 4 years. I Called my mother, Wendy Perry and spoke to my Step Dad, Neal Perry, who told me to call the police because if he didn’t get away with my child. He will go back for someone else’s. I need thought of that.. I Hung up and instantly called and I spoke to a Sargent last night and he told me I did everything I could and Did it right.
Although the story’s subtext was somewhat dependent on the interpretation of the reader, it sounded most of all as though an overbearing shopper made a fellow customer feel uncomfortable. Stipp made it clear that she felt differently:
I gave them times and a detailed description of the man who tried to take my baby away from me.. I spent a majority of my day yesterday trying to wrap my head around what happened and how I could have done things differently. But I don’t think I could have. I protected my child the best way I knew how. And I’m sharing this with all of you in hopes you never have to encounter this situation. There are some sick freaks out there && I never thought I would have to encounter one. .
Stipp claimed that the police told her that she “did it right” and “did everything she could,” hinting that authorities were in agreement with Stipp’s interpretation of events as a ruse to abduct children.
Many of the comments on Stipp’s thread came from readers who were also convinced the incident was related to trafficking (although they disagreed on whether the mother or child was the intended victim), recounted instances in which the “same thing” happened to them, encouraged Stipp to carry a gun or conceal her identity, and repeatedly claimed that similar interactions are becoming exceedingly common. One of the recurring themes amid hundreds of comments was absolute, unshakeable conviction that Stipp narrowly avoided being targeted, and that abductions of that nature were on a measurable upswing:
We contacted the Coon Rapids Police Department to ask about the rumor and related claims, particularly since Stipp hinted that police reinforced her belief the encounter was likely an attempted crime. Police sent us a report pertaining to Stipp’s experience, noting it was classed as “suspicious activity.” However, they said that there are no similar-but-credible reports of abductions or near misses in the area of the Coon Rapids Walmart.
Although the report notes that a Walmart associate suggested Stipp was possibly followed out to her car, the department did not appear to believe the incident was related to human trafficking. The department did look for the individual, but noted that he might very well have been going about his business unaware that Stipp was so unsettled by the encounter:
As Stipp and hundreds of commenters demonstrated, the belief that Walmarts, Targets, Krogers, and IKEAs are teeming with accented men swarming with the intent to whisk women and children away is as pervasive as it is old. Dozens of nearly identical Facebook posts recount similarly vague (but shared as harrowing) accounts of purported attempted abductions in Target, Walmart, mall parking lots, or other family-friendly retail outlets. Rumors of this sort became fashionable on Facebook in or around May 2015, when a woman shared a story, later debunked, about an Oklahoma Hobby Lobby store encounter.
The following month, Twitter was overrun with rumors of a sex slavery ring targeting college kids at summer job interviews; later that same month a long-circulating urban legend about a theme park abduction appeared and made the rounds again. Subsequent stories included a frightening (but false) claim about purported teenaged abductors (armed with heroin-filled syringes to drug putative victims) at a Denton, Texas, Dillards, a story from a woman convinced she was a near-victim of human traffickers with gift bags in the parking lot of a Hickory, North Carolina, Walmart store, and a constellation of rumors claiming Target stores in Tampa, Longview (Texas), and Houston were populated by a legion of sex trafficking scouts.
Not long after a similar claim on Facebook went viral, “Free Range Kids” author and parenting advocate Lenore Skenazy wrote about the skyrocketing popularity of social media abduction horror stories:
What the heck is going on, America? This “My kids were about to be trafficked, I just KNOW it” post is so shockingly similar to last week’s, “My kids were about to be trafficked, I just KNOW it” post that it feels … creepy. A lot creepier than being at Ikea where a couple of men glance at my kids.
The reader who sent me this link asked if I thought there might be some “validity” to it, to which I must respond: No. In fact, I think it’s crazy. What, two men are going to grab two or three kids, all under age 7, IN PUBLIC, in a camera-filled IKEA, with the MOM and the GRANDMA right there, not to mention a zillion other fans of Swedish furnishings?
Can we please PLEASE take a deep breath and realize how insanely unlikely that is? How we don’t need to be “warned” about this? How NOTHING HAPPENED!
You can TELL nothing happened, because the whole thing was described as an “incident.” And Lenore’s #1 Rule of Reporting is: When something is called an “incident,” it’s because nothing happened. In fact, my alternate headline for this post was:
POINTLESSLY TERRIFIED MOM URGES OTHER MOMS TO BE POINTLESSLY TERRIFIED
Skenazy notes that the tales themselves fueled the belief that trafficking is happening everywhere, but that is completely incongruent with known patterns of abduction or trafficking:
So while we’re at it, here’s a snippet of last week’s note from David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, on the likelihood (or not) of sex trafficking of young children in America:
Child abduction rarely occurs in a crowded public venue like that, where help would be easy to muster.
Most sex trafficking lures and abductions are of teenagers.
We have been so brainwashed by talk of trafficking that we imagine we see it everywhere.
We contacted Stipp via Facebook to ask about the Coon Rapids Walmart incident, but have not yet received a response.
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