9-year-old runaway takes airline for a ride

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DALLAS – A 9-year-old boy was so determined to return to his former home in Dallas that he ran away, talked his way onto a Southwest Airlines flight from Seattle and changed planes in Phoenix before being caught during a layover in San Antonio.

The case raises questions about how airlines and airport security ensure that passengers are who they say they are, and how a child could travel so far unattended before being stopped.

Semaj Booker’s cross-country adventure began Sunday evening when he stole a car near his suburban Tacoma, Wash., home and led police on a 90-mph highway chase to Seattle, police said. He dodged a set of spike strips before the engine blew out and the 1986 Acura coasted into a tree.

Police returned the boy to his mother, but by the next morning, he was gone again.

The 4-foot-9, 85-pound fourth-grader then showed up Monday at a Seattle airport ticket counter, giving the name of a 12-year-old and saying that his mother was already at the boarding gate, Southwest Airlines said.

The information Semaj gave them matched a paid, ticketless reservation, and an agent issued him a boarding pass, the airline said.

He then went through a security checkpoint, boarded a plane to Phoenix, made his connection to San Antonio and waited for a plane to Dallas.

“At that point, the airline staff was checking his paperwork and asking him for his boarding pass, and he didn’t have it,” said David Hebert, a spokesman for San Antonio International Airport. “The initial thought was that he was lost and confused.”

Airport police questioned the boy, who lied about his name.

“It just seemed like he was evasive on some pretty basic questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? Where are you headed?” Hebert said.

San Antonio airport police eventually found out where he was from, called Seattle police and learned that his mother in Lakewood, Wash., had reported that he ran away.

Semaj was apparently trying to get to his grandfather’s house, where he lived several years before moving to Washington, Lakewood police Lt. David Guttu said.

“He says Dallas is his home,” he said. “I want to live in Dallas. I’m going to Dallas, and that’s his whole motivation.”

His mother, Sakinah Booker, declined to comment Wednesday. But she told The News Tribune in Tacoma on Tuesday that Semaj dislikes the family’s neighborhood in Washington and is fearful of a sex offender who lives nearby.

“He does not like it here at all,” she told the newspaper.

Booker’s aunt, Mapplelean Calico, told The Dallas Morning News that Booker and Semaj came to live with her in Dallas for a short while five or six years ago.

“She was at a homeless shelter,” she said. “She was trying to get her life started over.”

Booker and her children then moved in with her father, she said.

Guttu said police have had problems with Semaj in the last couple of months. He’s accused of stealing at least two other cars, and he went missing on New Year’s Day before being found two days later.

On Wednesday, prosecutors charged the 9-year-old with felony car theft, eluding police and driving without a license. Guttu said it is unclear whether he will face charges for his airport trek.


But Semaj’s youth pastor said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News that the boy is no more troubled than other boys his age.

“Just like most of the kids we work with, all of the kids have some sort of challenge or issue they’re going through which is common in today’s world,” the Rev. Tony McMath said. “He’s a bright young kid and, of course, he’s pretty creative, and when he sets his mind to doing things, he’s pretty good at doing it, it looks like.”

He said Semaj probably learned to drive from videogames or TV.

McMath said he’s concerned that aviation officials didn’t stop the boy before he made it to San Antonio.

“Somewhere in the travel, something should have been noticed,” he said. “There are at least three to four check stops for any traveler that at least in my opinion should have thrown up some flag.”


Southwest declined to comment about the security implications of the boy’s journey.

Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said no one can get through a screening checkpoint without a boarding pass.

Airlines are responsible for issuing boarding passes and checking IDs at the security checkpoint. But that is likely to change, Harmon said.

“That is one of the functions that the TSA is looking at taking over,” she said. “We’re currently doing it at about 200 airports across the country.”

Seattle is not one of them.

But Harmon said the incident shouldn’t alarm airline passengers because there are many other security procedures designed to thwart terrorism.

“To get through the checkpoint, everybody has to have a boarding pass, and they get thoroughly screened,” she said.



(c) 2007, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-18-07 1327EST

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