TAMPA — The thief took the presents. He took the Christmas tree, too.
He even took the tree's decorations, said Ana Perez.
The burglar who sneaked into Perez's unoccupied house Monday night took every gift Perez had bought for her five children, and she couldn't afford replacements.
"I was in shock," said Perez, 27. "The first thing that came to my mind was 'what am I going to tell my kids?' "
It all started on Monday, when Perez went shopping at an Orlando outlet mall. She's a single mother living on disability checks, so the gifts were necessities: she picked up Nike sneakers and clothes from Oshkosh B'gosh.
"Stuff for school," she said.
To hide the presents from her children, she took them to the River Cove Street home in Tampa that she and her kids were planning to move into soon.
When she showed up Tuesday morning, the presents and tree were gone. So was the washing machine and radio.
"They even took some clothes from my dresser," she said.
Police believe someone entered the house through an unlocked window. As of late Wednesday, the burglar had not been caught.
Perez called 911, and Tampa police Officer Justin Brown came.
Brown did the normal things police do when called to a burglary. Then he did something else.
He empathized with Perez. He has two children, ages 5 and 8.
"It was things like shoes and shirts — things they needed," said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "It wasn't lavish gifts. That's what really got to him."
Brown planned to donate some gifts to the family, and on Wednesday the Tampa Police Department took it a step further.
The department announced it will be collecting gifts for the Perez family through the end of today. The gifts can be dropped off at District II headquarters, 9330 N 30th St. in Tampa.
On Friday, Brown plans to pick up the presents and deliver them to the family — just in time for Christmas.
The kids don't know a thing, Perez said. They'll think Santa Claus was responsible.
But Perez knows. She says her gratitude is indescribable. She especially thanks Brown.
"I think he's an angel from God," she said. "It's good to know there are people out there who care."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.