A Philadelphia woman faces kidnapping and child endangerment charges after fleeing to Florida with her two young daughters and living in a squalid seaside sand pit.
Fort Lauderdale police put out an urgent bulletin for the woman, Tammy Kongkham, and her 8-year-old daughter after her 10-year-old daughter was discovered alone, begging for food at a tony shopping mall. Authorities fear the younger child, Kimberly, is in danger.
The older daughter, Kelley, disheveled and covered with bug bites when she was found a week ago, told police the three lived in a damp, litter-strewn and ant-infested hole they dug in the sand below playground equipment. They subsisted on water, coconuts and food scavenged from the trash.
Sometimes, the girl told police, they heard children playing above them, but their mother ordered them to keep still.
Authorities say Kongkham, 35, who divorced in 2003, faces kidnapping and child-endangerment charges. The children, who lived with Kongkham after the divorce, were removed from her custody in the fall because she was not sending them to school, Philadelphia police said.
Alicia Taylor, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Human Services, said the children were then placed in foster care.
On Oct. 16, the girls were about to enter Juniata Park Academy school, in the 8800 block of East Hunting Park Avenue, when Kongkham, who disguised her dark hair with a blond wig, approached them outside the school, Philadelphia police said. They left with her willingly and were last seen boarding a Greyhound bus at the Filbert Street station.
After a social worker learned that day that the children were missing, Taylor said, DHS notified Philadelphia police, hired a private investigator, and reported the abduction to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Taylor said DHS requested an Amber Alert, which would have increased the urgency of the search, but was told by Philadelphia police that the Pennsylvania State Police said the circumstances did not fit the Amber Alert criteria.
Jack Lewis, state police press secretary, said yesterday the department's Amber Alert Section had no records of a request from the Philadelphia Police Department to issue an Amber Alert in the case.
"We were not aware of the case until we were contacted today by the Department of Public Welfare," he said.
Under Pennsylvania law, Amber Alerts can be launched through the state police if there is evidence of an abduction or a likely abduction of someone under 18.
The law also states that another criterion - a significant threat of harm to the child - must be met, said Cpl. David Devitt, an assistant supervisor in the Amber Alert Section.
Devitt said he was not familiar enough with the case to say whether it fit the criteria. But he added that state police instruct local authorities to report abductions even if they are not certain they fit Amber Alert criteria.
"We always tell them it's better to call if uncertain rather than let one slip through," he said.
Philadelphia police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said the department's East Detectives Division quickly entered the particulars in the FBI's national crime database. Police also obtained a warrant charging Kongkham with kidnapping, unlawful restraint, interfering with child custody, false imprisonment, and concealing the whereabouts of children, all felonies, Vanore said.
The children's father, who lives in the Philadelphia area, was estranged from the family and had no contact with his ex-wife until she called him recently asking for money and saying she had the children with her in Florida, Vanore said.
Officials said Kongkham had no known family or connections in Florida and they do not know why she went there.
According to court records, Kongkham had a couple of minor brushes with the law in Chester County. In 2002, she entered a guilty plea to driving with an improper child-restraint system. In 2003, she was found guilty of driving while her operating privileges were suspended. In both cases, she listed Philadelphia as her hometown.
A DHS caseworker was dispatched to Florida yesterday to bring Kelley back to Philadelphia, as police focused their search in Broward County, where they received numerous tips from people who think they may have seen the mother and child.
Authorities say that about a week ago, Kongkham realized she could not care for both girls and abandoned Kelley inside the hole, telling her she was on her own.
The investigation was complicated by the fact that Kelley, when discovered panhandling, initially told detectives that she was 18 and that her name was Rose. Her emerging story was so bizarre police did not know what to believe.
On Tuesday, she finally told detectives about living in the hole and took them there, where they found physical evidence confirming the story.
"She wasn't forthright. She was scared and she was confused, which is not uncommon for children," Vanore said.
FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver said federal authorities in Pennsylvania and Florida were working together to assist local police in Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale. The FBI also issued a fugitive warrant for the mother as well.
Officials said there was no evidence that the mother would intentionally harm the children, but they have concerns about the younger girl's safety.
"Anyone who would leave her 10-year-old daughter to fend for herself while she goes off with the little one is not in her right mind," Vanore said. "Our main objective right now is to find Kimberly and make sure she is safe."