Infamous runaway says he's changed his troublesome ways

Infamous runaway says he's changed his troublesome ways
LAKEWOOD, Wash. -- These days, he's skateboarding with his big brother and loving on his little sister.

This is not the Semaj Booker we've seen.

Booker began making national headlines at just 9 years old for repeatedly running away, leading police on a 90-mph chase in a stolen car and conning an airline out of plane tickets to Texas.

"I stole the lady's car. It was my mom's friends car," said Booker. "I wake up before anybody does."

"'Oh, his future was penitentiary.' That's all I saw," said his mother, Sakinah Booker.

Reports of jacking cars and outfoxing airport security made it tough to like the little boy with the bad rep or his mother.

"It's still carrying on. (People say,) 'That's Semaj Booker. That's the bad little kid,"' said Sakinah Booker.

But when you meet him, it's tough not to like him. Maybe that's why he got away with so much so young.

"I still, to this day, don't understand how (you) let a 9-year-old kid - regardless of what he said and what he did - how would you let him on two planes and let him get all the way to San Antonio, Texas," said Sakinah Booker.

To understand why and how he did it, and to see if he's changed, we asked Semaj Booker, now 12 years old, to walk us through his runaway ruse.

"I knew, like, how to turn the car on and get it out of park and put it into gear and stuff like that, and that's it," he said.


Semaj Booker at 9 years old
Semaj Booker says he learned driving from playing arcade video games. But the fourth-grader found himself in a real-life high-speed chase, heading to the airport in a stolen car.

"I was just driving super-fast," he said. "When they turned sirens on, (and I) got stopped, pulled over, (I) got scared and drove off."

His getaway backfired, but didn't deter the boy bent on returning to Texas.

"I wanted to see my grandpa so bad, but mom said we couldn't go. So I just went by myself," he said.

The morning after the chase, Semaj Booker snuck out again, this time catching a bus to Sea-Tac Airport.

"I didn't know what to do. I just told 'em a lie and they gave me a ticket," he said.

On the spot, the 80-pound runaway hatched a heavyweight plan to claim another passenger's seat.

"I heard it over the (public address system), and I said I was the person that lost it. And they gave me the pass," he said.

With no ID, no adult and just a boarding pass belonging to somebody else, Semaj Booker made it through security and onto a plane. Until then, he'd never before been on a plane in his life.

"I was super-scared when I got there," he said.

The boy made it to San Antonio, but his mom, who had reported him missing that morning, met him at the airport. But that wasn't the end of Semaj Booker's run.

"I just did it again. They caught me that time," he said.

Police returned the runaway nearly a dozen times. Among the officers who brought him home was Tina Griswold, one of the four Lakewood police officers murdered at a Parkland coffee shop.

"Tina was like, 'You got a good home, have a good family. Don't do that. Don't hurt your mom or your family. You're too smart. I don't want to be the one to find your body dead anywhere,'" said Sakinah Booker.

Semaj Booker's troubles did end up hurting his family. After being charged with a break-in he denies having been involved in, the court questioned the boy's mother's ability to care for her kids. Sakinah Booker's five children were placed in foster homes.

"When they took the kids, my soul was taken," she said.

Semaj Booker lived with his foster family for a year and a half. And when he ran away, it wasn't to grandpa, but back to mom.

"He said, 'Mama, I love you, and I'm sorry. And I'll never put you through that pain again,"' his mother said.

Sakinah Booker credits her son's foster father with providing for the boy a compassionate male role model he so desperately desired. The boy's real dad is in prison.

"He's not a bad kid. He made some bad choices, but I'd rather him do it now than when he's 18," said Sakinah Booker.

Semaj Booker says it took losing his family to adjust his attitude. Since then, he's improved his grades and plays football with the Eastside Angels. He hopes to one day attend USC. And he now has big dreams "to play football and go in the Marines."

The boy says he's ready to play by the rules and beat his rebellious record.

Sakinah Booker is still fighting to get one of her five children out of foster care.