VALRICO — It was less than a minute before the SUV disappeared.
Ellany Noriega, 55, and her 25-year-old daughter, Chelsea Noriega, had been carrying things in and out of Chelsea’s silver Volkswagen for about 30 minutes Tuesday afternoon. Chelsea kept the car running as her 1-year-old daughter slept in the back seat. It was parked right next to a door at Ellany’s house, in the 2600 block of Green Valley Street.
On their next trip back out to the SUV, it was gone. Both women went into “mom mode” and immediately dialed 911, Ellany said. On Wednesday, in a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times, she recounted what happened next.
“We panicked,” she said. “We started running down the street.”
Ellany ran one direction, Chelsea ran the other, asking neighbors if they had seen the car. They quickly stirred up a lot of interest.
“Everyone was out, all the way down the entire street,” Ellany said.
Neighbors pulled their security camera footage and began emailing pictures to the police. Some of the images showed a man walking quickly toward Ellany’s house. As deputies arrived, they asked the Noriegas to wait outside while they searched inside. They interviewed mother and daughter separately.
Then, the women waited. They prayed and made small talk with the officers. About two hours later, police asked them to come outside. Tinnley had been found, safe in the backseat of the SUV. It had been abandoned about four miles away in the parking lot of St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Brandon.
Ellany said her first thought was “Thank God” — she felt her prayers had been answered. And throughout it all, she marveled at law enforcement’s quick work.
“Their response was unbelievable and amazing.”
Authorities took Chelsea to the church, where she and the baby’s father, Jonathan West, were reunited with her daughter. Afterwards, the family returned to Ellany’s home, where they joined deputies and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister in speaking with news crews.
In a Facebook Live post, Chronister expressed gratitude that the child was safe but encouraged the suspect to turn himself in.
“There is still a price to pay for your actions,” Chronister said. “I would encourage you to turn yourself in because, as you’ve seen with our deputies in recovering this baby and this car, they’re going to be just as diligent to track you down, make sure that you are put behind bars and that you answer for the trauma you caused this young family tonight.”
On Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office was still looking for the suspect and asked anyone with information to call 813-247-8200.
Chelsea, Jonathan and Tinnley, who live in Lakeland, stayed at Ellany’s home Tuesday night. The grownups played with the baby and hashed over the day’s events.
All of them skipped dinner, except Tinnley. In the chaos of the day, she hadn’t had her lunch.