ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. » The timing was just right for saving the life of a 6-year-old girl and for turning a 24-year-old mechanic and father of two young daughters into a hero.
It was coincidence that Antonio Diaz Chacon had come home from work early to spend time with his family Monday afternoon. It was also a coincidence that the family’s washing machine had just gone out, forcing them to do laundry a block down the road at a relative’s home.
Had it not been for that, Diaz Chacon wouldn’t have been there to see the girl thrown into a van as another neighbor yelled for the would-be kidnapper to let the child go.
Diaz Chacon is credited with saving the girl after chasing the van through a maze of neighborhoods to the edge of where Albuquerque’s sprawling housing developments meet the desert. It was there where the van crashed into a pole, the suspect fled and Diaz Chacon was able to rescue the girl and take her home.
He didn’t think twice about his actions.
"The way he grabbed her and threw her into the van, I knew it wasn’t right," he said, as a swarm of media stood outside his home Tuesday night to hear his story. The events were interpreted and relayed from Spanish to English by his wife.
"I knew I had to catch him. I had to get the girl back from him and take her home, back where she belongs," he said.
It all happened so fast on a sidewalk in the normally quiet mobile home park, where even on the evening after the abduction kids played freely in the streets on their bikes and push scooters as food vendors sold roasted corn and other snacks.
A pair of 911 calls came in quick succession.
On one, a frantic 12-year-old says her little sister is missing. On the other is Diaz Chacon’s wife, Martha.
"We are outside of my mom’s house here," she told the dispatcher. "We heard a man going, ‘Hey, hey let her go. Let her go.’ So we turn around …
"The man came running to us and said, ‘They stole a little girl.’"
Phillip Garcia, 29, had snatched the girl moments earlier, taking her away in a blue van, police said.
Diaz Chacon jumped in his black pickup and gave chase.
It wasn’t until the van crashed and the driver got out that any sense of fear set in for Diaz Chacon.
"When he got down I was thinking, what if he has a gun," he said.
Garcia fled on foot, and Diaz Chacon reached the girl and told her he would take her home. Garcia then returned to his wrecked van and took off but was later captured by police, authorities said.
Hidden under a rock just 25 feet from the van was packing tape and a tie-down strap, police said.
Inside the impounded van were tostadas, a glove, a Leatherman tool, a black satchel, orange strapping similar to the strap found hidden under the rock, police said.
"This little girl was very lucky," police Sgt. Tricia Hoffman said. "We can only guess what would have happened to this child."
"Throughout the county we see situations like this and they do not end typically well," she said.
Police were among those who called Diaz Chacon a hero.
One of his daughters even shared the news about her dad’s heroic actions with friends at school on Tuesday.
Diaz Chacon said he was proud to help. While he was chasing the van, he said, he thought of his own two girls — one 7 years old, the other 5 months — and how he would want someone to do the same for him.
"I told him ‘I don’t know how you could do it, just go after him, not knowing where he’s going, what he’s going to do?" his wife said. "But he saved a life." Garcia was charged with kidnapping, child abuse and tampering with evidence. Hoffman said Garcia is from Albuquerque and had a revoked license but she was unsure if he had a criminal record.
Garcia immediately "lawyered up," declining to give any statement to authorities, Hoffman said. Garcia remained jailed and no lawyer had yet been listed as taking the case, according to court officials.
There have not been any other recent child abductions or attempted abductions in the city, Hoffman said.
The girl told police she had gone to a neighbor’s to pick up some tostadas and was walking home when the van stopped and the man grabbed her.
"She went to go to the neighbor’s and on her way back we don’t know what happened to her. … When she was coming back or on her way, she just like disappeared," her sister said in the 911 call.
The girl was grabbed with such force, police said, that bruising had already begun to appear on her chest and back Monday evening. The girl told police the man put his hand over her mouth and she bit him.
She said the man shoved her on the floorboard to keep her head under the window view, according to the police report. She told police there were no backseats in the van and described other details consistent with the impounded van, police said.
She also described rolling in the van when it crashed, and breaking a fingernail. Police said they found what appeared to be a piece of fingernail in the van.
During her interview, police said the girl was concerned that she was unable to bring the tostadas home because she had left them in the van.
The Diazes said the girl’s family had thanked them on Monday, saying they would always be grateful for what the young father had done.
Martha Diaz said she was grateful what could have been a parent’s worst nightmare was not realized that day.
"Everything just worked out," she said, referring to the perfect timing of that afternoon.
"Even now we say, ‘What if, what if we hadn’t seen him? What if he would have been two minutes earlier.’"