Alone and ill in a Silver Spring apartment, a 4-year-old girl began dialing random numbers yesterday morning on the cream-colored telephone in the living room. Within minutes, she reached a rural hamlet in Wisconsin and set off a frantic two-hour telecommunications scramble that ended when Montgomery County police located her and filed misdemeanor charges against her mother.
"I don't know how she did it," said Sarah Weeks, a receptionist at the health department in Walworth County, a farming community east of Wisconsin's capittl of Madison. "It's pretty miraculous."
The girl dialed 1-414-741-3141, and the department's "Public Health Line" rang about 8:30 a.m. Central time. "It was real quiet at first," Weeks said. "Then there was this little voice saying, 'Hi.' She talked about her mom and that she wasn't there."
For the next two hours, Weeks laughed and sang nursery rhymes and ABCs with the girl, keeping her on the telephone while Walworth sheriff's dispatchers, the local phone company and American Telephone & Telegraph traced the call to the Washington area and notified Montgomery County police.
Around 11:30 a.m. Eastern time, Montgomery County police Officers Dale Anonsen and John Laney found the girl in a ground-floor apartment at the Flower Branch complex on Piney Branch Road. "She was bright, aware of what was going on," Anonsen said. "She wasn't afraid to talk to us or go with us."
Police yesterday charged the girl's mother, Luvisca Deligny, 27, with leaving a child unattended, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and a 30-day jail term.
The girl said in a telephone interview yesterday that she was trying to contact her mother at work when she reached Wisconsin health officials. "I said, let me call somebody. I was going to call my mommy. I wanted to tell her I was all alone."
Deligny disputed police claims that she had left her daughter alone for most of the morning. "I went up the street to the bank and left a girlfriend with her," Deligny said. Police said Deligny's roommates left the child alone when they had to go to work.
Deligny said she moved to Silver Spring about two months ago from New York City. She shares a two-bedroom apartment with two other women. Yesterday, stacks of boxes lined a wall in the sparsely furnished apartment. Framed posters of reggae singer Bob Marley and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. hung on the walls.
The girl said she stayed home from day school yesterday because of a bad cold. "My mommy had to go to work," she said. "She had to get some money."
Deligny, who works in computer processing services for a local bank, said she took the day off to care for her sick child and had left to run an errand. "I'm still not sure she was on the phone that long," she said. "I'll wait to see the phone bill to determine if it's true."
For Wisconsin officials and telephone engineers, it was a frantic search to locate the child.
"I had no idea that she was so far away from our area," Weeks said. "She talked about Washington. I thought she meant Washington Street or Washington Elementary School here. But we had no luck."
Weeks said she called the Walworth Sheriff's Department, which said it would trace the call.
Tracking the call to the Washington area took about an hour, said Robert Kalbunde, special services engineer with the independent State Long Distance Telephone Company in Wisconsin.
"This was the longest trace we've ever had to do," Kalbunde said. He said the local phone company had to contact AT&T's Denver office, which handles long-distance service for the region. AT&T then called its Washington office, which switched the call to the local carrier, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., Kalbunde said.
Unfamiliar with the Washington area, Wisconsin officials initially tried to call Hyattsville police and the Prince George's public school system, Kalbunde said. About 11:30 a.m., Montgomery County police received a teletype message about the girl, which was radio dispatched to Anonsen and Laney in their patrol cars.
While Kalbunde raced to track the call, Weeks kept the girl on the phone. "She was singing her ABCs, counting numbers, singing songs," Weeks said. "She was a real sweetheart."
Anonsen said a maintenance worker unlocked the apartment's door. The officers took the girl to the Silver Spring district station, where her mother later claimed her.
Weeks said her telephone friendship with the girl touched many people in her office. "We want to know what happened to her," Weeks said. "We are concerned about things like this. She could have gotten anybody . . . someone who could have hung up on her."
Staff writer Lynne Varner contributed to this report.