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Updated: 1:36 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016 | Posted: 1:36 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016

Reporter seeks to find child he saved 30 years ago

A hero’s tale: How I saved a little girl from being kidnapped
Hal Habib stands outside the Fort Lauderdale hotel and tiki bar where, 30 years ago, he stopped a 6-year-old girl from being kidnapped. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

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A hero’s tale: How I saved a little girl from being kidnapped photo
Hal Habib gets an award from the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. Rich Vidal, who helped Hal stop the kidnapping, is at far left.
A hero’s tale: How I saved a little girl from being kidnapped photo
The story in the Miami Herald the day after Hal Habib and others helped stop a 6-year-old girl from being kidnapped.
A hero’s tale: How I saved a little girl from being kidnapped photo
Thirty years after the attempted kidnapping, Hal Habib reunites with Linda Swint’s mother, Joyce Hoover, in Frederick, Md. in July.

By Hal Habib

Palm Beach Post

FREDERICK, MD. —

Sitting across the table from her, I finally said what had been on my mind from the moment I found her picture on the internet.

Whatever became of Joyce Hoover and her little girl?

I had waited 30 years and traveled more than a thousand miles to find out.

Joyce Hoover pushed aside her iced tea on this warm summer afternoon and looked down at the yellowed newspaper photo of herself hugging her daughter, taken the day after we met.

Try as I might, I’ll never forget her expression on that day.

It was the day I stopped her 6-year-old daughter from being kidnapped.

Burly stranger by the pool

Sept. 28, 1986, wasn’t unfolding as a remarkable day. I went to the Orange Bowl, saw Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins lose to the San Francisco 49ers 31-16, then headed to my favorite watering hole to erase the memory.

The Chickee Bar on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale was the kind of Sunday afternoon neighborhood joint that would inspire Jimmy Buffett to jot lyrics about umbrella drinks on a stray napkin. Formal attire consisted of flip-flops, cutoffs and a tropical shirt. Nobody ever drank alone, since everybody knew everybody.

Except for the burly stranger lingering by the pool.

I first caught a glimpse of him as I was about to pull out of the parking lot. I wasn’t looking at him so much as the girl he was carrying as if she were a rag doll. He grabbed her by one arm so tightly that she was suspended in air, her tiny feet dangling in a futile stretch for the ground. Her cries told me she’d been misbehaving, and that Daddy was punishing her by taking her home. But this was more than just a father punishing his daughter.

He tossed her into the back seat of his car, shoved her down and walked around to the driver’s seat to take off.

She stubbornly popped back up.

He angrily shoved her back down.

That’s when it happened.

"I want my mother!" she yelled through tears.

Four words that changed my life — and hers. They told me that maybe this wasn’t all it appeared to be, or at least, if he were her father, he was a rotten father.

My new Camaro be damned, I pulled it in front of his car, blocking it, then jumped out and confronted him through his rolled-down driver’s side window.

"What’s going on here?" I demanded to know.

He didn’t say a word. He stared at me, dumbfounded. Thankfully, Rich Vidal, a friend and paramedic, had the man on his radar from the moment he grabbed the girl. Although Rich couldn’t hear what was going on over the music, when he saw my actions, he hurdled the poolside railing and hopped in the car on the passenger side. Rich slid the gear lever into park, then yanked out the keys.

Just then, Joyce came running up, led by her 5-year-old son, Steven. Joyce (then known as Joyce Swint) worked in the Fairwinds Hotel office by the bar, and the kids enjoyed playing in the pool just a few feet away. Little Steven told Mom she had to come — right now — because his sister, Linda, was in trouble.

Flinging open the car door, Joyce pulled Linda out and wrapped her arms around her.

"Do you know this guy?" I said.

"I’ve never seen him before in my life!" she screamed, the horrified expression on her face unlike any I’d seen before, or have seen since.

I turned to see the entire bar had emptied, engulfing us in a three-deep circle.

"Call the police," someone said.

A firefighter, a bowling ball of a man about 5-feet-10 and 220 pounds, had another idea.

"Screw the police," he said. "Let’s take him out back and deal with it ourselves."

As tantalizing as vigilantism sounded, lawfulness prevailed.

"Don’t let him get back in the car," said the bar manager, Kevin Sharpe. Until then, it never occurred to me the man could be armed.

Max Fernand Augereau, it turned out, was a career criminal. French-born, 44 years old, with scruffy hair and a scruffy beard to match, he had just moved into a nearby trailer park. Although he was a chef at a popular Fort Lauderdale restaurant, Augereau had a record dating back five years.

We cornered him and Augereau nonchalantly leaned against the hood of his car, arms folded, the picture of a man certain he could talk his way out of this.

A Fort Lauderdale police cruiser pulled up. Then another and another and another.

Police took our statements. They took Augereau to jail.

He eventually told police he’d been drinking that afternoon, which could explain his curious behavior while we waited for the officers. Why did he do it? He offered conflicting stories to police, at one point claiming the girl asked him for a ride. In his report, the arresting officer wrote, "He stated that he did not know why he grabbed her and did not know what he would have done had he been able to leave." The report also says a woman’s purse with no identification was found in the trunk of his Pontiac.

At the time, I was a 28-year-old editor in the sports department at The Miami Herald. Still, no amount of journalistic experience qualifies anyone to gauge such a strange story in which I would become a principal figure.

I wasn’t ready for what came next.

What if I hadn’t acted?

"Pair thwart abduction of girl" was the banner headline in The Herald a day later. The week that followed was surreal, with TV crews visiting my residence and office, a crime-watch group picking up Rich and me in a limo for a lavish dinner, and other civic groups giving us commendations.

Sharpe, the bar manager, told me that two days after the incident, a man visited the bar, asking for Rich and me while waving hundred dollar bills.

Before he became a crime-fighting television host, John Walsh, who lost his son, Adam, in a heinous Broward kidnapping five years earlier, presented me with a plaque bearing Adam’s likeness. I make a living with words but struggled to find the right ones as John quietly explained he’d just flown back from California where he was trying to help a couple whose child disappeared. This case, he told me, was such a welcome respite.

A hero. That’s what I was called, even by police, who inscribed "A true hero" on another plaque.

Unless you’ve been in a similar position, I don’t expect you to get what I’m about to say. Whether it’s someone who performed CPR, dove into a canal to pull a stranger from a sinking car or took action to prevent a kidnapping, you often hear of heroic deeds done by people who don’t consider themselves heroes. And you’re reading one now.

This is who I am: someone who did what he needed to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of what I did — as proud as anything I’ve ever done — but I look at from a different angle. What if I hadn’t acted? What if, in those handful of seconds, I turned away? What if I didn’t want to get involved?

And what if I turned on the news the next day and saw that girl’s picture? That chill I felt when Joyce said he’d never seen the man before in her life? That’s what I would have felt, forever.

Nobody has called me a hero in ages. A good reason is that for nearly all of these 30 years, I’ve hardly spoken about the incident. I assure you that most people who know me — and know me well — are reading this with mouths agape: 5-foot-5 Hal did what? To a 6-1, 210-pound guy with a record?

Once, I spoke to a journalism class at Florida Atlantic University. The professor had Googled my name and stumbled across a reference to the incident, so she put me on the spot. After giving her a look, I swallowed and began telling students it was Sept. 28, 1986. As I did, a girl in the front row mumbled, "He remembers the date?" I nearly paused to say, "Of course I remember the date."

You’d probably find my most precious memento strange. With the Swints present, the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce honored Rich and me at its monthly breakfast, during which tiles advertising the Yellow Pages were positioned at every place-setting as coffee coasters. Trinkets.

As everybody got up to leave, little Linda walked up to me, tile in hand.

And silently handed hers to me.

After 30 years, I needed answers

Five years and five years’ probation. That’s what the judge sentenced Max Augereau for that day. A plea deal, no trial.

And that was about the last I’d heard of any of them.

I often wondered whatever happened to Joyce and her two children. Sept. 28 never passed without my thinking of them, especially Linda.

Where is she? What if anything does she know of what happened? Of me? Is she happy?

Is she safe?

I decided after 30 years, I needed answers.

The journalism business has taught me that some people leave a trace as they go through life, some don’t. The Swints fell into the latter category, including Joyce Swint, who had remarried and changed her name to Joyce Hoover.

Although I traced them to Frederick, Maryland, about an hour outside Baltimore, making contact was a challenge. Voicemail and electronic messages to Linda went unreturned. So did Facebook friend requests. Steven accepted my request but nothing more. Finally one day came a Facebook message from Joyce: "Of course I remember you!"

At last, Joyce summarized the past 30 years — how she’s working two jobs, how Steven is busy supporting his 4-year-old daughter and how Linda is working fulltime and going to school fulltime.

"But she is very shy," Joyce wrote.

That might have closed the door on any face-to-face reunion, except for one other point:

"It is very exciting to be able to say thank you again," Joyce wrote. "You did save my ‘little girl’s’ life many years ago."

A month later, I got on a plane.

"She was so fearful afterwards"

I walked into The Home Depot in Frederick, where Joyce worked, and there she was at the service counter.

"Can I help you?" she said.

"You don’t recognize me, do you?" I said.

"Hal?" she said almost immediately.

An hour later, we huddled at a nearby coffee shop.

Thirty years is a lot of time to fill in.

Linda, it turns out, remembers me, but has only sketchy details of the incident. At the time of my visit, Linda was house-hunting in Missouri because her boyfriend was being transferred.

Our lives in the weeks and months after the near-kidnapping were polar opposites.

While I was riding around in that limo, life was traumatic for the Swints.

About a week after the incident, Joyce received a call from an apologetic woman. Augereau raped me, the woman told her. "If only I’d pressed charges," she said.

Augereau was no stranger to police, compiling a rap sheet that included two cases of grand theft, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill, burglary, kidnapping and two sexual batteries — one occurring a week before the Chickee Bar incident, the other, three weeks after.

Meanwhile, Joyce couldn’t go into crowded stores without traumatizing Linda.

"She was so fearful afterwards," Joyce said. "I think she got tired of being afraid. It got to the point she was afraid and did not know why."

Joyce herself was so unnerved she did not return to her apartment, instead spending time with relatives before deciding it was time to leave Broward County.

I offered Joyce one bit of peace: Just before arriving at the coffee shop, I ran a search that showed Augereau died of unspecified causes in 2004 at age 61, in Lee County.

I also shared another fact — that during the investigation involving Linda, police administered a polygraph to determine if Augereau was involved in the abduction and murder of Susan Jacques, an 18-year-old Connecticut student on spring break whose body was found in a canal near Delray Beach five months prior. He passed that test.

Over the years, Linda tended bar to help pay for college. Now 36, she’s relieved to be on the brink of graduating — the delay attributed to a change in majors — and is inches shy of becoming a paralegal. Given that I now cover the Dolphins for The Palm Beach Post, I was amused to learn she is an avid Philadelphia Eagles fan. Joyce proudly showed a photo of a painting Linda drew, attesting to her considerable artistic skills.

Joyce related a story from the night of the incident. After leaving the scene, she took the children to her mother’s. Earlier that day, her mother had been at her prayer group, praying for her family.

"They were praying at the time she was kidnapped," Joyce said. "If somebody says they don’t believe in prayer, talk to me. I believe I have a girl because of God. He put you in the right place at the right time. He put Rich and my son at the right place at the right time."

Joyce added, "You saved her, Rich saved her, my son saved her."

As for lingering memories?

"She knew something happened because of all the attention but she doesn’t remember the fear. I don’t know if she blocked it out."

Along this journey, I reconnected with Rich, a 60-year-old grandfather living in Port St. Lucie, still married to Sophie, who worked at the Chickee Bar. The longer we talked, the more I learned that everything I feel about that incident, he feels. That includes rejecting the "hero" label and wondering about the forces — mystical or otherwise — that inspired us to act. And often wondering whatever happened to Linda.

Rich retired last year, but 30 years as a paramedic qualified him to say, "I’ve saved a lot of people, but that was the highlight."

As we spoke, my phone buzzed with a notification. I looked down to see "Amber Alert," a chilling reminder to Rich and me.

"I honestly believe we saved that little girl’s life," he said. "We did good."

For 30 years, I’ve wished I could see the grown-up Linda, or at least talk to her. Not to hear thanks but to thank her — for yelling for her mother and jolting me into action.

I thought meeting her would mean closure, an affirmation our story had a happy ending.

I learned that Linda doesn’t remember every detail of what happened on Sept. 28, 1986.

Come to think of it, maybe that is the happiest ending.

Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report.

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