It might have been an innocent situation: a young man lifting his daughter into the family van. But Victor Martinez had a gut feeling that something was wrong.
He was right. What he witnessed last week in South El Monte turned out to be a kidnaping.
Because Martinez got the van's license number and telephoned the 911 emergency number, an 8-year-old girl who had been walking to Potrero Elementary School in El Monte was rescued unharmed minutes later.
And a 16-year-old from Baldwin Park has been arrested and charged with kidnaping.
'Saved Your Life'
"A (sheriff's) deputy brought her into my office and said to her, 'This is the man who called us and saved your life,' " Martinez said in an interview this week. "She gave me a hug, but it was seeing her face that makes me feel close to the girl.
"If I don't ever do anything in my life again, the look on her face means everything to me. It is something I will never forget."
Sheriff's deputies responded to Martinez's call immediately.
One deputy, Sgt. John Rahn of the Temple City station, thought the driver might take a kidnap victim to a remote area and headed for the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area two miles away, where the girl, the suspect and the van were found in the parking lot within 10 minutes after Martinez's call came in.
Martinez, 32, a lithographer from West Covina, said he became concerned shortly after 9 a.m. last Thursday when he was starting a coffee break at his job on Potrero Avenue in South El Monte.
Noticed a Van
He went into a room facing the street to get his wallet and noticed a van stopped across the street, about three blocks from the school.
Martinez went outside to buy food from a lunch truck, returned to the room to put his wallet away and noticed that the van was still there.
"I then saw the driver get out of the van and open the door," Martinez said. "Through the windows of the van, I saw a girl walk by. He ran toward her and picked her up and put her in the van. She didn't struggle--she must have been in shock--so I still didn't know for sure something was wrong."
Martinez said the driver was a large man who appeared to be about 25 to 30 years old and was dressed much like gang members who frequent the area. And that gut feeling persisted.
"I ran outside and tried to catch him. I was not successful but I did get the license plate number."
Martinez said the driver appeared calm when he picked up the girl and drove off slowly, but it still seemed strange. The girl, he said, was standing between the two bucket seats, something most fathers would not allow.
"What he did was not that unnatural at the time," Martinez said. "A kidnaping is not an everyday thing you would see. But after piecing it together it seemed odd."
Martinez, a newlywed who has no children, sees youngsters walking to the nearby school every morning. He said he was hesitant to call the police emergency number, for fear it might be a false alarm.
But the more he thought about it, the more uncomfortable he became, and he called 911 within three to four minutes of the van's departure.
"You can't imagine how I felt when I found out what had happened, because I had thought it could be an innocent occurance," he said.
'No Wasted Motion'
"I still don't know why I noticed the van. The driver didn't seem to be on drugs because he was quite calm, very precise and there was no wasted motion.
"I don't know if he was sitting and waiting for an opportunity. I don't know his state of mind or what made him do it. "
A Sheriff's Department spokesman said the suspect, whose named is being withheld because he is a juvenile, has no prior arrest record.
To Martinez, getting involved was "not that big a deal."
"Why is this special when it should be an everyday thing?" he said. "What ever happened to Neighborhood Watch? Everyone has stressed how good I did and how good the officer who found the girl did, and it seems to me that no one cares anymore about watching out for your neighbor."
Martinez said that although he was aware of what had happened to Phoebe Ho, he was not thinking about that case when it occured to him that the girl in South El Monte might be a kidnap victim.
Phoebe Ho, a 7-year-old South Pasadena girl, was abducted as she was walking to school on Dec. 11. Her body was found Dec. 18 in Riverside County and a suspect was arrested Monday.
Martinez said he was only doing what every citizen should do when he took the time and effort to note the details of the incident and then call the authorities.
But even so, luck was on his side and that of the kidnap victim, whom deputies have refused to identify.
"Because I was seeing the whole thing through the windows of the van, if it had been a panel van I would have missed it," Martinez said.