SPRING HILL — The cardboard box filled with dolls and toys sat on the passenger seat of Philip C. Klein's white and blue van as he waited in a Spring Hill neighborhood where children regularly walk dogs or play in front yards.
Around 6 p.m. Sunday, Hernando County Sheriff's Detective James Bettineschi approached Klein, 35, whose van was parked near the detective's home, according to interviews and an arrest report.
Bettineschi was off duty, dressed in shorts, flip-flops and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. He said he had just left his house after a agitated neighbor had told him about the man in the van with the toys.
The detective said he identified himself to Klein as a law enforcement officer and asked the stranger what he was doing there. The Weeki Wachee man, unshaven with a long pony tail and a hat cocked to one side, looked right at the detective, Bettineschi recalled, and responded.
"I'm just here to give little kids Barbie dolls," he said, according to the detective.
As they were talking, Bettineschi's wife walked around the back of the van and wrote down Klein's license plate. Soon after, Klein sped away.
Klein later called 911 and told authorities someone had pulled a gun on him on Groveland Street. A deputy later stopped Klein at a Hess gas station in Masaryktown, and Bettineschi confirmed to the deputy that Klein's statements about being held up were untrue.
Investigators said they then searched Klein and his vehicle and found methadone and methamphetamine. Klein was arrested on charges of drug possession, filing a false report and driving with a suspended or revoked license. His bail was set at $30,500.
Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Donna Black said authorities have received reports of a man fitting Klein's description attempting to give toys to kids in other areas around Hernando County. That portion of the investigation is ongoing, she said.
Bettineschi, who has daughters ages 14 and 16, said he didn't consider what happened — and what might have happened — until later.
"After it sank in, it set me back," he said. "Maybe not as a police officer, but definitely as a father."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or [email protected]