When Officer Steve Dunham met the 7-year-old, the boy was offering to sell his teddy bear.
The little guy must have seemed industrious, standing in front of the CVS at the busy intersection of Second and Main in Franklin, Ohio, trying to hawk his toy on July 7. Most children don’t want to part with their stuffed animals. In this boy’s case, it was a lone source of comfort, but he was desperate.
He hadn’t eaten in days.
Perhaps if he sold the small bear for enough money, he could walk across the street and get a kid’s meal at Subway. At the very least, a Snickers bar from CVS. Those cost mere quarters.
And it must have seemed like a charitable area. One walking the short two blocks from the Great Miami River to the CVS would see the towering spires of at least four churches.
But he wasn’t having any luck.
Still, being downtown and completely alone was likely better than being home. His parents allegedly weren’t even aware he’d left the house.
“It broke my heart,” Dunham told WLWT. “He told me he was trying to sell his stuffed animal to get money for food because he hadn’t eaten in several days.”
Dunham approached the boy, who was initially shy and uncomfortable.
“I think he thought he would get in trouble,” he told CNN. “He told me he was hungry and was trying to get money for food.”
Dunham was not going to buy the bear. But he would buy the boy a sandwich at Subway.
The pair “said a little prayer and ate dinner together,” Dunham told the TV station.
Meanwhile, Dunham asked the boy where he lived, who his parents were.
Their names are Tammy and Michael Bethel, and they live on Main Street, according to the Journal-News.
Dunham and the boy headed to the Franklin Police Department, where the boy watched cartoons with a dispatcher for a few hours.
Meanwhile, fellow officers Amanda Myers and Kyle O’Neal went to the house.
There they found utter disarray, along with four other boys — ages 11, 12, 15 and 17.
The floor of the house was covered in trash and discarded, empty liquor bottles. Cockroaches scurried in and out of the odorous crevices in the trash piles, and the house had the pungent, choking smell of stale and drying urine — both cat and human, Police Chief Russell Whitman told WTWL.
A photograph of the refrigerator released by the police department showed that what little food it contained was rotting, such as a package of raw chicken that had turned a deep, dark brown. One of the containers attached to the door — which are generally used to hold jars of salad dressing and other condiments — was filled halfway with black liquid. Small, unidentifiable chunks floated in it.
The entire refrigerator was smeared with what appeared to be a sludge of some sort, varying in color from red to yellow to black.
Another photograph showed the kitchen.
In the photo was a slow cooker filled with discarded trash. Next to it was a bottle of oil, which had turned brown. On the stove-top sat uneaten food and what appeared to be a crushed fast-food soda cup. A bottle of Comet cleaner sat on top of the stove, alongside a bottle of vinegar and a container of salt.
A single cabinet’s doors hung open, and its lone shelf was warped and hanging low, threatening to break.
The officers arrested Tammy and Michael Bethal and fed the other children. Warren County Children Services conducted an emergency removal of the four children and, along with the unnamed 7-year-old, put them in the custody of unidentified relatives.
Both parents were arraigned Tuesday, although the story was not widely reported until Friday. Both parents pleaded not guilty to five counts each of child endangerment, the Associated Press reported.
Later, Dunham visited the 7-year-old.
“I came back to check on him and he was hiding. He jumped out to scare me when I came back in the building; he got me real good,” Dunham told WLWT. “[We] would like to go home at the end of the day feeling like [we’ve] done something positive and, you know, had some kind of positive impact.”
His police chief praised his work.
“Officers see this nationwide every day and they do go above and beyond to feed homeless, feed children. … They treat people like their own family,” Chief Whitman told the Journal-News.
“I’m very proud of my officers for what they did, but officers across the nation go above and beyond every single day,” Whitman told CNN. “We just happened to be put in the limelight. You can find stories like this everywhere with police officers every day. That’s why we get into this business, to help people.”
As news of Dunham’s actions circulated, grateful citizens wrote messages of thanks, gratitude and encouragement on the Franklin Ohio Police Department’s Facebook page.
“Franklin Ohio police department you’re the best. Thank you for doing what you do. You got great officers and thank god for officer Steve Dunham,” wrote one user. “A heartfelt thanks for the caring, concern and decisive action of the officers involved in this tragic case, from the mother of a young officer in Georgia,” wrote another. “Just read the story. You guys (and gals) probably wonder from time to time in your careers if you really make a difference out on the street…..Clearly, you do. Excellent job. And Thank you for protecting us all,” wrote a third.
The parents have pretrial hearings Sept. 16. Until then, Judge Rupert Ruppert has ordered the parents not to contact the children, the Journal-News reported.