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Police in Fremont, California, refused to let a family of six have their holiday season ruined by a scrooge who reportedly broke into their house two days before Christmas and stole presents from under their tree.
Within hours of the Fremont Police Department's Wednesday-night response to the initial burglary report, officers used their own money to buy presents for all four children and returned to the Szeto family's house late Christmas Eve to deliver the gifts.
Christine Szeto, a photographer who joined her husband, Brian, in watching their four children — Naomi, 13; Isaac, 11; Elisabeth, 8; and Anna, 2 — grin while unwrapping replacement presents, told TODAY.com she was overwhelmed by the department's generosity.
"My kids kept saying, 'This is the best Christmas ever!'" said Szeto, who commended the officers not only for their presents, but also for making her family feel safe.
Officer John Bordy was part of the Fremont Police Department's midnight shift that responded to the initial call. The family reportedly arrived home to find a break-in, but remained outside the house until police made sure nobody was still inside. "We didn't find anybody, and we brought the family in to do sort of a walk-through of the house," he said. "We learned that numerous items were taken — numerous electronic devices, iPads, several iMac computers, laptops, cash — and then we went in the living room, and the mother looked under the tree, and she was like, 'Oh, my gosh, they stole all the presents.'"
Although Szeto said her family has insurance, she's not sure how much that will cover losses she estimated at more than $50,000. She said she's still trying to process the stolen property with the most emotional value, including all of her photos saved on her desktop computer, her wedding and engagement rings, and her children's presents. But young Anna may have taken the break-in the hardest.
"She was probably the most sad," Szeto said. "Her lips quivered when we said, 'Look, they took all our gifts!'"
A report of stolen Christmas presents was a first for Bordy, who joined the FPD about a year and a half ago. "That was kind of a gut punch," he said. "But throughout the whole experience, the husband and wife, along with the four kids, not one time did I see them down about it. They were upbeat the whole time. It really hit home for me."
Grateful that no one in her family was physically hurt, Szeto tried to keep the incident in perspective. "Honestly, I think I feel a little sad for the people who took [the presents]," she said. "How desperate are they that they needed to steal these gifts?" She added with a laugh, "I think if they actually opened them up while they were here, they probably would have left them."
Bordy was discussing the burglary with colleagues back at the station, where Officer Lindsay Kennedy, who joined the department six years ago, took action. "I was like, 'We need to get presents for these kids. We need to do something, you know?'" she told TODAY.com. "We were figuring out the ages of the kids and what kinds of things to get them."
After her shift ended at 7 a.m. Christmas Eve, Kennedy and her husband, fellow FPD Officer John Kennedy, went to a nearby Target and used their own paychecks in an effort to ease the pain of the Szeto family's losses. "We picked out a bunch of presents, anything we thought those kids would like," she said. "We even asked people shopping there, 'What would you buy for a 12-year-old girl?'"
When she returned for her next shift Thursday night, Kennedy recruited fellow on-duty officers to help her wrap between 16 and 20 total gifts, about four or five per child. All of them, she said, chipped in a few bucks to offset the cost of her last-minute Christmas shopping.
Bordy, who'd been in steady contact with the family after the initial report, clued the Szeto parents in on the gift-giving visit on late Christmas Eve. That's when the mom asked her two oldest children, who still didn't know they'd be receiving presents, to thank police for their service.
At about 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve, some 10 Fremont officers returned to the house with a police cruiser serving as an unorthodox sleigh.
"All the kids came out running," Kennedy said. "We let them all open the presents, and it was the neatest experience. Those kids were the cutest kids. They were just so happy. They loved all the presents, and they were just smiling from ear to ear. … It really was the true meaning of Christmas to see the smiles on those kids' faces."
Added Bordy, "The parents were probably as happy as the kids."
Szeto praised the officers for going "above and beyond" the call of duty. "They came and just over-blessed [my children]," she added. "They each got like five things. So, it's hard for me to say, 'Oh, it was so sad and devastating,' because it really turned out so well."
The burglary investigation had not yielded any arrests as of Monday afternoon, but the investigation is ongoing. "We're going to figure out who these people are," Kennedy said.
News of the kind deed went viral soon after FPD posted its account of the burglary and sweet photos of the subsequent gift exchange on its Facebook page. "We are very sorry the family was victimized by burglars the day before Christmas and that all of their gifts were taken," reads the caption accompanying photos of officers and the Szeto family members smiling and opening gifts, as well as pictures of thank-you notes from Isaac and Naomi. "While we know our gifts weren't exact replacements, we hope that it helped to restore some hope and happiness for the children."
Szeto hopes the story reminds people of police officers' benevolence. "I hope this allows people to have faith in our law enforcement," she said. "If that's one thing that comes out of this, I'm excited."
Kennedy and Bordy said they're appreciative of Szeto's sentiments and the public praise. "It's nice to be in a positive light," Kennedy added. "We took this job because we want to help people."
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