Santa Claus came early to Cynthia Recarte's Lindenwold home, stacking gifts for her little ones under the tree more than a week ago. Then, hours before Christmas Day, a Grinch stole the presents.
But Santa came back to save the day.
This time, the jolly one's team wore blue uniforms, not red. The sleighs were motorized, with sirens - no reindeer here.
When the Recartes lost more than $10,000 in cash and gifts during the burglary, South Jersey police officers and Camden County dispatchers decided they couldn't let the family's 4-year-old twin girls and 2-year-old son wake up without presents under the tree.
In the middle of the night, public safety workers rounded up Barbie dolls, Matchbox cars, dresses and more from local police and fire departments. Lindenwold officers delivered the gifts in two squad cars around 3 a.m., three hours after Recarte reported the burglary.
On Thursday, Recarte was still speechless. "There are no words. . . . Especially when you have kids, and your kids are the main thing in your life, there is no way to thank someone who makes your kids happy," said Recarte, 23, a cellphone store manager.
Lindenwold officer Adam Errico, a father of a 6-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl, said he wanted to protect the children's innocence.
"The kids didn't need to know what happened," he told reporters at the Camden County communication center. "The only way they would have known is if they'd woken up and not had any presents from Santa. We did everything we could to make sure that their innocence was kept in check."
Unfortunately, Recarte's twin girls - Madelyn and Adelyn - had seen the tree after the theft.
Recarte and her husband, Carlos, 26, the twins, and son Christopher left Emerald Ridge Apartments on Gibbsboro Road around 9 p.m. Monday to have dinner with Recarte's brother-in-law, who lives in the complex, she said.
When they returned home around midnight, they noticed that the door was bolted differently from how they had left it.
Recarte said a back door had been forced open.
The Recartes noticed a hallway closet ransacked, she said. But the girls went to the bare space beneath the Christmas tree. "I saw tears on my little girls' faces," Recarte said. "They said someone got into our apartment, and they stole our gifts."
Lindenwold Officer Joe Tomasetti, the first to arrive on the scene, set to work with police dispatcher Jeannie Moore to get gifts for the family.
She put a plea for help on Facebook and alerted fellow dispatchers, who, in turn, called police departments, including Bellmawr and Stratford, and the Westmont Fire Department.
The departments came through. Bellmawr police had gifts left over from their toy drive, including Barbie dolls. A couple of dispatchers split the cost of a gift card. One of those dispatchers also brought wrapping paper from home - and gifts, too. Moore's 17-year-old daughter donated two stuffed dogs.
Around 2 a.m., dispatchers and officers were sprawled on the communications center floor, wrapping gifts stacked in piles.