Jeffrey Fang (center) checks his phone as he walks away from a group of police officers at Jackson and Laguna Streets, after midnight, Feb. 7, 2021. Officers just told Fang his children were found.
Jeffrey Fang (center) checks his phone as he walks away from a group of police officers at Jackson and Laguna Streets, after midnight, Feb. 7, 2021. Officers just told Fang his children were found. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/KQED)

'They're OK': How One Journalist Experienced the Search for Two Kidnapped Children

'They're OK': How One Journalist Experienced the Search for Two Kidnapped Children

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Journalists who report on cities know this phone call, this scenario, nearly down to the detail: It's the middle of the night, you're at home unwinding in your pajamas, maybe with your latest TV-binge obsession, maybe snuggled next to a loved one, when the phone rings.

It could just be a personal call. Or it could be a news tip so compelling that everyone in your audience needs to know, now. You have to pick it up — because you never know.

You tap that green phone button, and someone on the other end outlines a grave situation. Mayor Ed Lee just died. There's an active shooter on a hospital rooftop. A wildfire is taking a turn for the worse, prompting mass evacuations. You've got to go.

This past Saturday night, I got a call much like those others. San Francisco resident and DoorDash delivery driver Jeffrey Fang's two toddlers, Winnifred and Sean, aged 4 and 1, were in the backseat of his silver Honda Odyssey minivan when it was carjacked.

Jeffrey was making a DoorDash delivery in Pacific Heights, leaving his engine on while bringing the bag of food to a front door. That's when he spotted a stranger in his vehicle. A struggle ensued, which ended with Jeffrey's car stolen, his children still inside.

The story was equal in gravity to so many news incidents I've covered. But this time, the horrific story was personal.

Jeffrey is my friend.

Trekkies Together

I admit it: Somewhere in my closet, I own a Captain Jean-Luc Picard costume. But then again, so does Jeffrey. (His is much nicer).

For almost ten years, we've debated the merits of Star Trek's goofy, makeup-laden societal allegories, having bonded over the show when we were City College of San Francisco students — me a student journalist, him a student representative on the college board. Jeffrey's been one of the few people I've hung out with, socially-distantly, since March. He asked me to be a pallbearer at his father's funeral. When the damned pandemic is finally over and my fiancee and I can finally have a proper big wedding, his invitation is near the top of the list.

Jeffrey Fang blowing bubbles on Golden Gate Park's Hippie Hill in 2012. KQED reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez took the photo.

So, suffice to say, I didn't expect that call from Jeffrey.

On the phone Saturday night, his voice was strained but focused. "I'm sorry to ask you this, Joe, but my car was just stolen with two of my children inside. I need your help to reach every TV station you can, to get the word out."

He's already talked to the police. But Jeffrey was right: as a journalist, I had unique connections with TV reporters, police, and community members of all stripes. I got as much information as I could—the make and model of the minivan, exact spelling of his children's names, along with photos of them—and started making calls.

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By 10:30 p.m., colleagues at various TV stations across the Bay Area were themselves mobilizing from their cozy Saturday nights to run the story. On the 11 o'clock news, the same photos Jeffrey sent me splashed across nearly every newscast.

I may not have been writing news that night, but I was in what I think of as my breaking news mode. The adrenaline pumps. You're alert, like you had a dozen cups of coffee, without the jitters. You're ticking off mental boxes of what you need to do.

My fiancee, Anna Kaminski, sat by my side as we followed every development on the local police scanner.

A Silver Honda Odyssey was spotted in the Mission. An officer checked a section of Golden Gate Park and found nothing. A description of Jeffrey's children was repeated, again, and again. This was like so many news events I had been part of before, and much like those incidents, the adrenaline suppressed the fear, suppressed the sadness.

Anna and I decided to head out to Pacific Heights and offer our support to Jeffrey, in person. I just had one last thing to do, the only other thing I could do, in my profession.

Tweet.

Little did I know how much it would echo. Partially in response to that tweet, to the TV coverage, and the Amber Alert that would later come from the police, it wouldn't be long before the entire Bay Area would rise up to help Jeffrey's family.

All of you are part of this story, too.

A community member sends Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez a text message coordinating a search for Jeffrey Fang's kids.

Joining the Search

At least an hour before the police's Amber Alert went out, I tweeted from my account, @FitztheReporter, "MISSING CHILDREN PLEASE HELP," along with the details of Jeffrey's plight.

Within hours, the Tweet had been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. By the time Jeffrey's kids were found, unharmed, the tweet was viewed more than 2.5 million times.

Many chimed in on Twitter, and elsewhere, offering to help.

"I'll spread the word."

"I just cross-posted this to an East Bay / Alameda group on Facebook."

"I'm spreading this alert to SF friends."

"I could put the word out in a taxi driver group chat."

Thousands of people in the Bay Area and beyond tweeted, retweeted, and did even more. Across San Francisco, people told me they walked around their own neighborhoods, or drove across the city, helping to be eyes and ears for Jeffrey's kids.

The Bay Area turned out for one of its own.

I wonder if the sheer volume of the Bay Area's concern for these children at all compelled the carjackers to rethink their plan. I suppose I might never know.

'They're OK'

Still scrolling social media replies with my face in my phone, hoping to find someone, somewhere, who spotted the kids, my fiancee and I gathered our gear to hunker down for the night: blankets, pillows, water, spare phone batteries, and snacks.

She drove (and I doom-scrolled) on the way from her home in Oakland to San Francisco to help Jeffrey keep his sanity.

My fiancee and I got to Jackson and Laguna streets at about 12:30 pm. I know the neighborhood well, as I grew up just nine blocks away, down the hill, toward the water.

A screenshot of the Citizen app alerting its users to the stolen vehicle with Jeffrey Fang's children, Winnifred and Sean, inside.

Nearly a dozen uniformed police stood nearby. One marked SFPD car blocked the street at either end of the block. Jeffrey stood at a corner, masked, speaking to plainclothes cops when we walked up. I grasped McDonald's bags in one hand, coffee in the other, hoping a full stomach would calm his nerves, but he refused to eat. He took the coffee, at least.

That's when his mind started to drift into perilous waters.

What if the carjackers, worried they would be accused as kidnappers, did the worst to his children to hide the evidence? What if they let Winnifred and Sean out of the minivan on a street, and they were struck by a vehicle? What if? What if? What if?

Anna and I tried to calm his nerves as best we could. In a very community-minded moment, a local organizer named Max Leung, who volunteered to search for the kids, also stopped by and offered Jeffrey moral support. The pandemic made comforting our friend harder than it should have been — we stood, as you can guess, socially distantly.

I offered to turn on the police scanner, for Jeffrey to follow the search in real-time. He said no, he could only bear to hear the news when it came in a definitive manner, good or bad.

We didn't stand there together long before one of the plainclothes cops called out, "Jeffrey, can you come here?" He held his hand out and cocked his fingers toward himself.

Jeffrey walked over. My stomach clenched.

"They're OK," he said.

I couldn't hear the rest. But I could see Jeffrey's back was to me. I watched his shoulders slump, the tension visibly fading from his body.

Anna and I shouted out. Leung, too. I threw my own cup of coffee behind me out of shock and joy. As it fell behind Anna and splattered next to a tree, I wrapped my arms around her as hard as I could, laughing from relief. Police from Bayview Station had found Jeffrey's children.

In minutes, Jeffrey sat in a police vehicle, finally heading toward his kids. Doing what any journalist would do, I took to Twitter to let everyone know Winnifred and Sean were safe.

A Story Everyone Could Relate To

Once home, the emotions still hadn't hit. I was too exhausted. This often happens after covering a heavy news story — the armor takes time to come down, the emotions take time to bubble up.

Still wired, I turned back to Twitter.

It was about 1:30 a.m. when Kim-Mai Cutler, a journalist and partner at Initialized Capital, reached out to me in a DM. We talk once in a while, and she offered wise counsel that night.

"Put up a GoFundMe for the dad. His family needs a break," she wrote.

She was the second person to say so. Another dozen or so people had already asked me for his Venmo information, to offer Jeffrey's family support. As a journalist, it was something I ordinarily wouldn't do — but again, Jeffrey was my friend, not a source.

So I set up the account. The Fang family's story had clearly resonated with people, and days later, at the time of this writing, more than 3,300 have donated to help them recuperate, and heal from the trauma of the night.

That's $136,910, to be exact, as of this writing. Easily more than a year's worth of Jeffrey's earnings, and counting.

I got to play my own small role lighting a spark to help Jeffrey, but it was only the beginning of something much bigger than either of us. The teams of police canvassing the city for his children, the small army of Bay Area folks going outside their homes in a pandemic to help, or the literal tens of thousands who spread the word—they’re the flame.

Maybe you’ve felt this way too: During the pandemic, with some of us stuck inside so often (with the obvious exception of our essential workers), it can seem like the webs of our lives have had all the threads snipped, one by one. The loneliness can be overbearing. But over the weekend, when my good friend needed it most, when he feared the worst — the unimaginable — for his children, it felt like all of the Bay Area’s human connections were woven together again — like thousands of Golden Gate Bridges built in the span of a few hours, with everyone in the community I love marching across in solidarity to lift Jeffrey and his family onto their shoulders.

It was Sunday, a day later, when the enormity of everything you all did hit me. The sobs that wracked me were happy ones.

Why Jeffrey’s Story is Really All of Us

Those who felt for Jeffrey’s family fall into two main camps.

Many empathized with him as a hard-working father from China who has been in the US for most of his adult life, an immigrant who became a citizen here, who over many long hours behind the wheel for various gig economy companies afforded to bring over his wife and three children to the United States right at the beginning of the pandemic.

Donors called out this story again and again in the GoFundMe comments:

"I come from a Korean immigrant family, and know the joys but also the struggle. Please know that there is far more good in the world than evil, and your sacrifices for your children are beautiful and worthy. Sending all love to you Fang family."

"I'm a child of immigrant parents and know how hard it was for my parents to raise two kids and make an honest living through hard work and sacrifice. Jeffrey Fang is trying to do this during a worldwide Pandemic. Best of luck and all the health and happiness to you and your family."

"From one immigrant’s family to another, we hope this will help. We understand the struggle. With hard work, it will get better in time."

Jeffrey Fang and two of his three children, Winnifred and Sean, Feb. 2021. (Chris Victorio/Courtesy of the S.F. Examiner)

Others who donated money said in GoFundMe comments that they found solidarity in his life as an Uber and Lyft driver-turned DoorDash driver, in the ever-precarious gig economy:

"Tech Workers For Tech Workers."

"I really felt for this family when I saw this on the news. This pandemic has been challenging for so many people. Working as a food delivery driver is tough enough. How difficult it must have been for him to juggle work and babysitting the kids. So glad there are so many kind hearted people reaching out to help this family."

"I'm sorry for your trauma and wish you a full recovery. My parents used to leave my siblings and me in the car while making deliveries in the '80s. The immigrant/refugee struggle is real. Your hard work will not go unnoticed, and your children will be better because of it. You make this country great, thank you!"

An excerpt from a GoFundMe for DoorDash driver Jeffrey Fang, whose children were abducted Feb. 6, 2021.

Ultimately, the Fang family's story hit The Washington Post, Vice, and nearly every local TV station, radio station, and news outlet you can think of. Thousands upon thousands of people responded to those stories on social media.

Jeffrey acknowledged the Bay Area's support in an interview with my KQED colleague, Sara Hossaini.

"I know they helped me look, they pitched in massively to help looking for my children, which I'm eternally grateful for," Jeffrey told her.

And as for his kids? How were they?

Sean is too young to say what he saw. But Winnifred apparently slept through the whole ordeal.

"She told me the only thing she remembers is waking up to police showing up at the car," Jeffrey said, "So I am honestly quite thankful for that. Quite thankful."

And as for me?

Much like Jeffrey, I'm quite thankful for all of you, too.

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