A Runaway Situation in Seattle

Semaj Booker has stolen cars and tried to run away from home nine times.
Semaj Booker has stolen cars and tried to run away from home nine times. (Komo Via Seattle Post-intelligencer)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

SEATTLE, Jan. 18 -- Weighing in at 80 pounds and standing 4 feet 9 inches tall, Semaj Booker has established himself as a regional heavyweight in the pre-adolescent sport of sneaking out of the house.

He could be the most persistent, most creative and most publicized 9-year-old runaway in the history of the Pacific Northwest. As his mother says, he really hates it here.

Semaj can drive a stolen car 90 mph while leading a police chase, as he demonstrated Sunday. The chase ended only after he blew the engine on a 1986 Acura swiped from a neighbor who had left the car unlocked and running. The boy then refused to get out of the car, which he had crashed into a tree.

Police had to break a car window, grab him and take him back to his mother's apartment in Lakewood, a gritty working-class suburb near Tacoma. This was his third stolen car in the past month, according to his mother, who said he learned how to drive playing video games.

The morning after the car crash, Semaj came up with a new, improved runaway scheme -- one that would transport him to Texas free of charge, get him on all-news cable television and prompt a local congressman to ask angry questions about how a kid could outfox a major airline and slip through federal airport security.

Early Monday, the boy managed to sneak out of his house and travel about 50 miles to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Police speculate he hitched a ride or stole another car.

His mother, Sakinah Booker, who is single and has three other boys, reported him missing at 7:30 a.m., but had no idea where he had gone. She later told reporters that Semaj loathes his life in Washington state, has tried to run away nine times since moving to the region less than a year ago and is "seeking a strong male figure" back in his former home state of Texas. His grandfather lives in Dallas.

At the Sea-Tac airport, Semaj did not have a reservation, nor did he have a means of buying a ticket. But he single-handedly conned Southwest Airlines and the federal Transportation Security Administration into allowing him to board a flight to San Antonio via Phoenix.

And that has annoyed Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), in whose district Semaj reluctantly lives.

"We have spent millions of dollars and inconvenienced the American public mightily trying to make air travel safe," Dicks said. "If a 9-year-old can exploit this security system, we are going to have to look into the procedures."

He ordered his staff to find out from the TSA how Semaj talked his way through Sea-Tac. This is what they learned, said George Behan, a spokesman for Dicks:

"The kid comes up to the first level of security at the airport, where an airport employee checks ID and his boarding pass. The kid says I lost my boarding pass. The airline employee takes him to a Southwest Airline ticket agent and the kid comes up with the name of a passenger on a flight to San Antonio."

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