Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett stood in Miami International Airport’s Terminal D anxiously waiting for the Pena brothers to arrive. The boys had been missing a week.
“It’s almost like a father waiting for his child to be born,” said Moffett, who stood next to the boys’ father Steven Pena on Sunday night. “I could feel what he was feeling.”
When the three young boys — who went on a nearly 3,000 mile cross-country journey with their mother after she illegally took the oldest from his Cutler Bay elementary school Feb. 14 — ran down the concourse, they jumped into their father’s arms.
“It was a beautiful moment,” said Moffett, whose department worked nonstop over the last week to reunite Erin, 12, Derick, 7 and Steven, 8, with their father. “The smiles on their faces said it all.”
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On Feb. 14, Erin’s mother, Carrie Weingarth, asked to take Erin from the Gulfstream Elementary cafeteria during lunchtime. Miami-Dade Schools Police Spokesman Ivan Silva said the school denied her request because she didn’t have custody of Erin.
Somehow, Weingarth was able to get Erin from the cafeteria anyway, Silva said.
The moment schools police learned from Erin’s father that his boy was missing, the search was on.
The mother didn’t only have Erin, she was traveling with her two other sons and her boyfriend.
Moffett, the chief, said he started getting information Friday night and put detectives on the case. Investigators took to social media, enlisted help from the media and posted the boys’ pictures on bulletins. Although Weingarth didn’t have custody of Erin, she shared custody of the two younger boys, Silva said.
The first tip came in that Weingarth, with her boyfriend Christian Coello, had switched cars in Jacksonville. A day later, the group was spotted in Louisiana.
Silva said detectives immediately notified federal authorities and secured a warrant for Weingarth and Coello’s arrest for “unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.”
As the group headed west, different agencies got involved including highway troopers in different states, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service. Moffett said his team had a conference call every four hours in order to “get on the same page.”
On Thursday, detectives got the call they had been waiting for. Police stopped the couple and children in Barstow, Calif. The kids were taken into custody. Weingarth and Coello were arrested.
Meanwhile, Moffett said his department helped Pena get full custody of the children.
“As a parent, not knowing where your kids are for that long of a time is the hardest thing to have to go through,” the chief said.
By Saturday, two police detectives were on their way to California to bring the boys home. After a flight in first-class, the boys arrived just after 10 p.m. and “were in good spirits,” Moffett said. They couldn’t wait to tell their dad about the flight.
“It was incredible just seeing them,” Pena told Miami Herald news partner CBS4. “It was really awesome.”
The Miami-Dade school district will work with Pena to get the boys enrolled in a school closer to his South Miami-Dade home.
Moffett said the department will continue its investigation and look into how a mother without custody was able to remove Erin from school.
Weingarth and Coello remain in a California jail.
“It is important for everyone to know that at the end of the day,” Moffett said, “we will stop at no end to bring one of our kids back where they belong.”