A woman accused of abducting a Pennsylvania toddler said the child's father wanted to sell the girl for thousands of dollars, authorities said.
The search is on for 2-year-old Nalani Johnson, who was last seen in Sharena Nancy’s vehicle at the intersection of Bryant and Clay Drives in Penn Hills Saturday.
Nalani’s father, Paul Johnson, told cops he and a friend had exited Nancy’s car at that intersection and when he went to retrieve his daughter, Nancy allegedly drove off, a criminal complaint obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said.
He said he tried calling Nancy’s phone but she didn’t answer, and then he called police, who issued an Amber Alert.
Nancy was pulled over about 7:30 p.m. and taken into custody, but there was no sign of Nalani, officials said.
Authorities said they were initially told Nancy was working as a driver for either Uber or Lyft when the alleged incident occurred, but said on Tuesday they had learned Nancy and Johnson were actually in a romantic relationship.
“Sharena Nancy and Paul Johnson became acquainted intermittently over the last few months, so they were known to each other,” Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said at a news conference held with FBI Pittsburgh officials and Nelani's grandmother. “They were friends, they were in the beginnings of an intermittent romantic relationship.”
Johnson and Nancy, who is married to another man, allegedly spent several hours together Saturday before Nalani vanished, McDonough said.
“We believe that an argument ensued at approximately 5 p.m. or so. Mr. Johnson and [Johnson's friend] Mr. [Justin] Rouse exited the vehicle with the intention of taking Nalani with them when Ms. Nancy pulled away with the child in the vehicle,” McDonough said.
Police said they have been told differing versions of events by Nalani's father and Nancy.
"A lot of our investigation is trying to corroborate one version with another," McDonough said.
Cops said Nancy, 25, claimed Johnson had told her to drive Nalani “20 minutes from a gas station in Monroeville along Route 22,” where she was flagged down by a woman standing next to a silver SUV with an out-of-state license plate. A second woman was reportedly in the car.
Nancy said she handed Nalani and her car seat over to the woman and drove away. Nancy said she then drove around, smoked cigarettes and talked on the phone with her husband, the complaint reportedly said.
Police said she claimed the handoff was part of a plan Nalani’s father came up with to make $10,000 by selling his child.
So far authorities have not found any evidence that points to the involvement of other individuals or an SUV.
Nancy’s husband, MD Raihan Uddin, told KDKA his wife didn’t take the child and claimed Johnson isn’t telling the complete truth.
“News says Paul Johnson doesn’t know Nancy, but Penn Hills detective told me they knew each other and Paul’s family members told me he knew Nancy since March…,” Uddin told the station in a Facebook message.
Johnson’s mother, Taji Walsh, shot down Nancy’s claims, saying her son, whom she calls "PJ," had no involvement in the abduction of her granddaughter.
“If the police felt that PJ was in any way involved, he wouldn’t be walking freely, he’d be locked up somewhere like [Nancy] is,” Walsh told KDKA.
Johnson's aunt, Pariss Johnson, also defended him and said he had nothing to do with Nalani's disappearance.
“He's terrified," she said. "This is his daughter. People are speculating about him, and they don’t know the whole situation. Can you imagine you’re out trying to take your daughter somewhere and have a good time? You don’t think that this is something that’s going to happen to your family. You see it on the news all the time."
Johnson has not been charged.
Uber and Lyft reportedly told the station no one with Nancy’s name used their platforms over the weekend.
The "allegations are deeply disturbing," Lyft said.
Nancy has been charged with kidnapping a minor, interference with custody of children and concealment of whereabouts of a child. She was arraigned on Monday and is being held without bail at the Allegheny County jail. Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for September 16.
Multiple law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, are searching for Nalani.