SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) — A woman who pleaded guilty to stealing a car with two young children inside and then heading to the U.S.-Mexico border was sentenced to 13 years behind bars on Monday as part of a plea deal.
Police say 27-year-old Leslie Esparanza Saenz jumped into a Hyundai sedan outside a Cricket Wireless shop on April 9, 2018 and took off. The car's driver had left his 8-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy in the car while he went into the store.
Around 2 p.m. that afternoon authorities spotted the car at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, arrested Saenz and returned the children to their father unharmed.
Saenz's family on Monday said she is sorry for what she did last April and they told the judge she has a drug problem.
The young girl who was in the car, now 9-year-old Malaiha Wheatly, was honored over the weekend at an event for young heroes. She received a special award for her bravery in calling 911 after Saenz took off with the car.
The third grader also got to meet the dispatcher Hailee Babiosak who kept her calm during the ordeal. At the ceremony a portion of the 911 call was played as well.
On Monday, Malaiha's father asked the judge for the maximum sentence of 13 years for Saenz and the judge agreed.
Outside the courtroom, Malaiha said she felt sorry for Saenz. Her father said he wasn't really satisfied with the sentence saying had Saenz made it across the border he fears he might have never have seen his kids again.
"It's hard," he said. "They don't want to drive in the car. They don't want me to leave their sight, period."
Overall, the family says they are looking forward to putting the incident behind them.