9-year-old runaway steals car, then flies from Seattle to San Antonio

9-year-old runaway steals car, then flies from Seattle to San Antonio »Play Video
Police say 9-year-old Semaj Booker, left, found his own way to San Antonio.
LAKEWOOD, Wash. (AP) - A 9-year-old boy who didn't like his suburban Tacoma home stole a car, got caught, then ran away again and flew to San Antonio with a plane change in Phoenix before he was arrested, authorities said.

Investigators and Southwest Airlines officials were trying to determine how Semaj Booker, who was trying to get to his grandfather in Dallas, made his way through security and onto the airplane.

Booker apparently got a boarding card and made it through airport security Tuesday, hopping two separate flights but landing in San Antonio, Texas - short of his Dallas destination, police said.

A Southwest Airlines spokesperson told KOMO 4 News: "This is a highly unusual situation that is still being investigated. What we know at this point is that the young man presented himself as a 12-year-old to our SEA (Seattle) ticket counter, requesting a boarding pass and saying that his mother was already in the boarding area. The young man's information matched a paid, ticketless reservation for the flight. Based on the information he gave us, he was issued a boarding pass. That is the boarding pass he used to board the flight."

Southwest says when the plane arrived in San Antonio, he tried to board a plane for Dallas but did not have information that matched any reservation. Police then took him into custody.

Just how Semaj got the name he used to get the ticket in Seattle is not known. He reportedly heard a name on a page, but Southwest and police have not verified those reports. His mother says someone should have checked his identification.

The Transportation Security Administration says present federal law requires a check of the identification of all passengers, 18 years of age or older. Because people under 18 often do not have identification, there is no such requirement for them.

A 9-year-old would require an identification tag when traveling without a parent. Southwest policy calls for such identification for children 11 and under. Because Semaj indicated he was 12 and agents had no reason to doubt him, he was not treated as an unaccompanied child.

The 80-pound, 4-foot-9 fourth-grader, held in juvenile detention Tuesday night in San Antonio, was "incredibly motivated to get to Texas," Lakewood police Lt. David Guttu told The News Tribune. "He doesn't want to live in Washington state."

The boy's mother, Sakinah Booker, told The News Tribune he dislikes the Lakewood neighborhood where the family lives and is afraid of a sex offender who lives nearby.

"He does not like it here at all," she said.

She said she was told the boy wound up in San Antonio rather than Dallas, his intended destination, because he boarded the wrong plane in Phoenix. She also said she had hoped to move her four sons back to Dallas soon, but Semaj grew tired of waiting.

Guttu said Child Protective Services had visited the Booker family sometime in the past few months at the request of the mother and another person, but the boy was not removed from the home.

Guttu said the diminutive boy's odyssey began Sunday when he stole an Acura that was left running outside a neighbor's house, only to be spotted by police near the interchange of Interstate 5 and State Route 512.

Police pursued young Booker on Highway 512 at 80 to 90 mph until he took an exit and the engine blew -- apparently the car was left in first gear the entire time -- after which the car went over a curb and coasted into a tree.

He refused to come out of the car, so officers broke a window to unlock a door and immediately recognized him as a frequent runaway and car thief, Guttu said. Last month he also crashed a stolen car before being caught by police in Tacoma, and more recently he was caught in Seattle in a stolen car that had run out of gas, his mother said.

She believes he learned to drive from playing video games on a PlayStation.

Because of those earlier episodes, she said, she had told police not to bring him home if he got into more trouble, but after the latest episode officials at Remann Hall, Pierce County's juvenile detention center, refused to admit him, partly because of his young age.

"Putting a 9-year-old in our facility with our population is not a good thing," said Shelly Maluo, the county's juvenile court administrator.

As a result, he was taken home again, but by 6 a.m. Monday he again had been reported missing. The next day, Guttu said, police got a call from a juvenile lockup in San Antonio saying, "we've got your runaway."

He said the boy was arrested as he got off a Southwest plane from Phoenix, but it was unclear how police in San Antonio learned he was on the flight. The boy initially gave a false name before admitting his true identity, Guttu said.

Guttu told The Associated Press that the Pierce County prosecutor planned to seek a juvenile arrest warrant for Booker on Wednesday, charging him with "felony elude" and possession of stolen properties. The charges would be sent to San Antonio, but Guttu wasn't sure what the next step would be.

"We really don't extradite juveniles. So that's going to be interesting. We'll see what happens," he said. "The police department's main job is to coordinate the warrant and coordinate his return as a missing juvenile."

Semaj's mom says bringing him back makes no sense. He's going to live with an aunt in Illinois.