On Oct. 10, 2021, a Sunday afternoon, a nice-looking, young man walked into the Bell-Mart B.P gas station in Bremen where I was working part-time. He was carrying a new, though overly-stuffed, backpack. He asked if he could sit down and I invited him to our snack table. The boy was completely encased in sadness and distress.
As he sat at that table, he began rummaging through his backpack and I saw that most of the items, including the backpack, were brand new. That made me wonder if he was a serial shoplifter.
He then asked to use the restroom and then carried his backpack in with him.
I decided to call him “B.B., short for Backpack Boy.”
B.B. was in the bathroom for a long time. After about five minutes, I started getting worried. By the time another two minutes passed, I suddenly felt this: He was in the bathroom, planning to rob the store and/or kill me. I went to listen at the door and if I heard him cock a gun in the bathroom, my plan was to hit the panic button and then run from the store.
As I approached the bathroom, I could hear water running. I opened a closet next to his bathroom door and started prattling around with a mop bucket. The water stopped. Feeling satisfied, I walked back towards my cash register.
The water started again. And so, I went back and pretended to return the mop, thumping it against the wall that separated the closet from the bathroom. The water stopped again. B.B. opened the bathroom door to see what I was doing.
I asked him, “Are you okay?” He said no.
I asked him if he had run away. He said yes. More questions but fewer answers. He said he had been walking for six hours, that someone was looking for him, and he might accept a ride somewhere. He wouldn’t tell me his name.
Then I suggested he get a soft drink and donut and rest at the table but he said he had no money. I told him none was needed. He did get a drink and sat down. He asked to borrow a phone charger, opened a new pack of ear buds, and asked if we had Wi-Fi.
Although just a few minutes had passed since I went from fearing my own murder, everything was now clear to me. A motherly intuition told me he had run away from the juvenile delinquency center in South Bend, because the walk here would have taken about six hours. He was depressed and was planning to kill himself.
He had told me none of those things. But I knew it was the truth.
About that time, Bremen Police Officer Pedro Lopez walked in. I looked over at the boy who had turned his back to me, and he was wearing his ear buds.
I began pointing anxiously to the boy at the snack table. Pedro looked around, saw the boy and with no verbal questions, mouthed the question, “Are you in trouble?” I nodded yes. Pedro asked for a police car wash code and walked out the door. Pedro paused just outside the window, beside the boy, and greeted him with a nod and a smile.
In minutes, the office phone rang. It was the Bremen police dispatcher. She told me Pedro was in the car wash and asked me what was going on. I told the dispatcher that I though I had a run-away from the juvenile center and I though he was planning suicide.
She asked me if he told me these things. I said he didn’t, but that it was a “mom thing.”
She told me she would look into it. Within minutes, she called me back and I could hear the subtle shock in her voice. She said a young man had indeed escaped from the center and the police in South Bend and St. Joseph County were looking for him. She asked me for a description of him. He looked to be about 14, was Hispanic, short hair, wearing black pants and a black shirt. “That’s him,” she said. I already knew that.
The dispatcher asked me if I could keep him there for 15 to 20 minutes. Four different police departments were en route: St. Joseph and Marshall Counties, the state police, and South Bend police were on their way to join Pedro and the Bremen police. I asked her to tell them to come in quietly, don’t rush him because I thought he had a gun in the backpack.
I was trying to figure out how to stall B.B. if he wanted to leave. He had refused every donut, and even the Dipping Dots ice cream offered to him. As the mother of five, I knew he was a child and he was in trouble. I needed to focus on keeping him tin the store, where he was safe.
Incredibly timed, my ex-husband came into the store. I softly told him, “Please help me stall this kid for about 15 minutes.”
Joe was confused but trusted my near-panic expression. He pretended to shop for gadgets, like air fresheners and do-it-yourself tire pluggers, all close to where B.B. was sitting. Because he is the original Joe Cool, Joe nodded to him and said, “What’s up, Dude?” They chatted, he met my daughter Kelli, and B.B. was polite to this weird, old man.
Actually, I think B.B. was being extra polite, and patient, because my daughter Kelli has Down syndrome. It was just another thing that fell into place. Joe and Kelli kept B.B. talking for about 15 minutes.
Pedro remained outside the building and then police began arriving outside. The police walked in slowly coming up behind B.B. Joe slipped out quietly with Kelli. B.B. was willing to talk only to Pedro. Both being young Hispanic men, and maybe because Pedro smiled and made eye contact with B.B. as he walked back to the car wash, they had a bond.
The police were walking him to the door when B.B. asked if he could give me something. He walked over and handed back the borrowed phone charger. B.B. said he didn’t want to steal it from me.
Later that night, Pedro came back in and said to me, “You wouldn’t have heard the gunshot.” He said B.B. didn’t have a gun. He had a knife in his backpack and he was looking for a good place to kill himself that day. While in the bathroom, he started writing a suicide letter.
While I was at the register, worrying about a gunshot, Pedro said B.B. was standing in there at the sink, running water, trying to gather the courage to slit his own wrists or his throat. The noise from the mop closet created a distraction for him.
The second time the mop rattled, it gave him a moment to pause and think about it. He lost his nerve and came out of the bathroom.
Pedro congratulated me and said I saved this kid’s life. I immediately knew it wasn’t just me.
Pedro’s police training, I assume, made him realize I was acting strange. He didn’t just ignore me and walk away. His instincts were critical in seeing something was going on with B.B.
It was the dispatcher at the B.P.D. that didn’t ignore me when I suggested he was a runaway from the juvenile center. She took the time, and trusted me, and was able to confirm my suspicions.
It was all of the responding police who believed me and respected me when I asked them to come in quietly. Sometimes, police are all too anxious and zealous and react differently. But they did exactly as I had hoped they would.
The Bellmans, who own the station, are heroes because they trusted me as their cashier. Given the circumstances, I knew the Bellmans wouldn’t mind the free drinks and food to B.B., or letting him in to use the bathroom. They could have removed the snack table, like all the other businesses were doing because of Covid, but they didn’t.
It was the Bellmans who gave Kelli a part-time job. That set up the opportunity where I was asked to work occasionally when they were short-handed. God led Kelli and Joe to stop and see me at just the right moment, which helped distract B.B. until police arrived.
It does take a village to raise a child and on that night, it took this village of many “heroes” to save his life.
I never learned the actual name of B.B., because of juvenile-stuff and privacy and all that… But I think about him often, wondering if he got help and has found the will to live. I hope so.