WARREN - When Michael Babuka Jr. got out of his 2007 silver Chevrolet Impala at 512 John St. in Niles about 11 p.m. Thursday to speak to the mother of one of his children, he did not imagine the nightmare his life would become for the next 6 1/2 hours.
"I pulled into the back of her driveway, walked into the door to talk to her for a few moments," Babuka said. "I wasn't in the house for more than a few moments, but when I stepped out the car was gone."
Inside the car was his sleeping 3-year-old son, Michael Babuka III.
"I ran out to the street as fast as I could," Babuka said. "I saw the car pull into a nearby alley. I ran after it, but it was gone."
Babuka called the Niles police and his son's mother, Shannon O'Malley, to tell them what happened.
An Amber Alert was issued about midnight for the missing boy.
Tribune Chronicle/Raymond L. Smith
Michael Babuka Jr. and his father, Michael Babuka Sr., express their appreciation for all those who worked and found Michael Babuka III, who was in the back of a car that was stolen in Niles Thursday night.
The Niles Police Department, the FBI, Mahoning Valley Violent Crimes Task Force, and police from Austintown, Warren, Weathersfield and other departments all worked to find the child.
"I was going nuts," Babuka said. "I had heard those stories of children being abducted and not seen for months afterwards. I was afraid this could happen to my son."
Babuka said his only thoughts were of seeing his son alive again.
"If the guy wanted my car, I would have given it to him" Babuka said. "I just wanted my son back."
Earlier that evening, Weathersfield police were called to 1509 Main St., on a report that a man was picking up flower pots and throwing them at the resident's car.
Ross A. Francis, 42, 162 Robbins Ave., who appeared intoxicated and had slurred speech was arrested by Weathersfield police on charges of criminal trespassing and criminal mischief. He was given a summons to appear in court next week.
Weathersfield police took Francis to a convenience store, just outside of the city.
From there, police believe he walked to 512 John St., where he saw Babuka's running car parked in the driveway.
About 4 a.m. Friday, Warren police Patrolman Ben Harrell was just waking up.
"I drank my coffee and checked my Facebook account, at which time I learned about the Amber Alert," Harrell said. "As a parent, my heart immediately went out to what the parents must be going through."
Niles police already had identified Francis as a person of interest, so Harrell gathered what information was available and decided to go to Francis' home.
"I figured he had to go home at some point, so I went there," Harrell said. "He was not home."
As Harrell was driving back to Warren, he saw the headlights of an Impala coming toward him near Underwood Towing, 2260 Tod Ave. The Warren patrolman made a U-turn to follow the vehicle.
Noticing the vehicle had duct tape on the rear bumper, as was described in a report he had read, Harrell checked the license plate number to make sure it was the right vehicle.
The vehicle's driver slowed, turned on its emergency flashers and parked at 4424 Tod Ave.
"He was waiting to see if I would pass him," Harrell said. "I pulled behind him."
The police officer jumped out of the police SUV with his gun drawn and yelled for the driver to get out, even as he was running to the car to pull him out.
"I asked if the child was still in the car and if he had hurt him," Harrell said.
He cuffed the suspect.
"I saw a bump in the back of the car," Harrell said. "Opening the door, I saw the boy."
When Harrell asked if the ''bad man had hurt him,'' Babuka III responded no.
"I hit him in the back of the head," the boy told Harrell.
James Oester, the owner of the house, saw the lights of the police cars outside his windows. He saw the officers with a man on the ground and another officer with a little boy.
"I had just seen the television news report of the Amber Alert," Oester said. "I wondered if this was the boy."
Oester offered to allow the boy and the police officers to wait inside the house. He gave the shivering boy a blanket to keep warm.
A short time later, Babuka Jr. ran up the driveway to Oester's house.
"I thought he was going to run through the door," Oester said. "He dropped to his knees and hugged his son. I couldn't imagine going through what he had been going through."
A short time later, Babuka's father and the child's mother arrived.
Harrell described being lucky in finding Francis and Babuka III within a half-hour after he began his shift.
"If it wasn't for the hard work of all the law enforcement departments involved in this Amber Alert, I would not have gone to his trailer park or recognized the vehicle," Harrell said.
Warren police have charged Francis with receiving stolen property. Niles police have charged him with car theft and kidnapping.
Francis, according to records, was released from the Trumbull County Jail Thursday after serving 126 days for violating probation in several cases, including telecommunications harassment.
He has past convictions for drunken driving, disorderly conduct and another telecommunications harassment conviction between 2003 and 2011 in Trumbull County Eastern District Court.
He was convicted in Girard Municipal Court of two drunken driving charges in 2000 and spent two years in prison after a third-degree felony burglary conviction in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court, also in 2000.