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After parking in front of her Illinois home earlier this year, Taylor Shepherd walked to the back seat of her Volkswagen Atlas to retrieve her 2-year-old son, Isaiah.
But before she could reach him, Shepherd saw a white BMW pull into her driveway. A man in a green mask exited the passenger’s side and ran toward Shepherd’s Volkswagen, officials said.
Shepherd, who was four months pregnant, tried to fight off the man. But she was thrown to the pavement and run over by her own car as the man drove away with Isaiah in the back seat, authorities said. Shepherd thought she might never see her son again.
After Shepherd frantically called 911, investigators contacted Volkswagen’s Car-Net service, which can track the location of the manufacturer’s vehicles. They hoped to locate Isaiah.
But a customer service representative said that wouldn’t be possible because Shepherd’s subscription to the satellite service had expired, according to a new lawsuit. The employee said he couldn’t help until a $150 payment was made, the complaint said.
By the time the family was able to make the payment, a bystander had already found Isaiah on that February afternoon, according to officials. But the family said it’s still recovering from the traumatic event.
In the lawsuit filed Monday, the family said that both Volkswagen and Car-Net’s service provider, Verizon, disrupted its chances of finding Isaiah by requesting payment instead of immediately assisting.
“I don’t wish it upon anyone to kind of go through not knowing where your child is and just thinking he’s gone,” Shepherd’s husband, Gregory Koutelidakis, told The Washington Post. “I mean, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world.”
Rachael Zaluzec, Volkswagen’s senior vice president of customer experience and brand marketing, said in a video in March that there was a “breach in the Car-Net call center process.”
“Words can’t adequately express how truly sorry I am for what the family endured,” Zaluzec said.
In an email to The Post on Wednesday, a company spokesman said Volkswagen is working “to ensure a process breach like this never happens again.”
A Verizon spokesman declined to comment.
Around 3:35 p.m. Feb. 23, Shepherd backed the Volkswagen into her Libertyville, Ill., home’s driveway after stopping at Starbucks and a pet store with Isaiah and her 6-year-old son, Grayson. After Shepherd opened the house’s door for Grayson, she walked back to the Volkswagen to retrieve Isaiah, who was asleep in his car seat.
When she saw the masked man appear and run toward the Volkswagen, Shepherd said she tried to beat him to the driver’s seat. The man shoved her, causing her to fall partway under the car, before he sped away and ran over the left side of Shepherd’s body, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said at the time.
Shepherd, whose stomach was covered in tire tracks, said she was so worried about Isaiah that she could barely feel pain. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and called 911 before texting Koutelidakis and her father, Kevin.
Deputies from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office arrived minutes later. Koutelidakis was preparing to take an exam near Des Plaines, Ill., that afternoon for an insurance adjuster license. When he saw his wife’s text, he rushed about 30 miles home.
While paramedics were placing Shepherd in an ambulance, a sheriff’s detective called Volkswagen’s Car-Net service. Despite the detective requesting information to assist with a crime, the employee refused to release the car’s location, the lawsuit said.
Unable to find another solution, the detective began inserting his personal card number to pay the $150, Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli said in a statement to The Post. When Koutelidakis arrived home shortly after, he said the detective asked to use his credit card instead, but Koutelidakis said he had left his wallet behind in a rush. Then Shepherd’s father arrived with a credit card, and his payment was processed around 4:25 p.m., the lawsuit said.
Shortly after, a bystander called 911 to report that they had seen a driver pull into a parking lot in Waukegan, Ill., and toss a child out of the vehicle, officials said. The bystander rescued Isaiah before he wandered onto a roadway; he was about nine miles from his family’s home, authorities said.
Deputies picked up Isaiah and brought him home, where Koutelidakis said he was pale, confused and asking for his mom. Around 4:46 p.m., Volkswagen located the SUV abandoned in a parking lot close to Route 43 – near the area where Isaiah was found, according to the lawsuit and officials.
Shepherd said a detective visited her at the Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville about 30 minutes later to inform her that they had found her son.
“I just thought whatever comes next,” Shepherd said, “I can get through it because I’m not going to a funeral for my child.”
Shepherd said she had ruptured her left elbow and fractured her pelvis, but her fetus was healthy. After undergoing surgery on her elbow two days later, her sons visited her in the hospital, which Shepherd said was the best moment of her life. Isaiah laid next to her on her hospital bed almost every day for the next three weeks.
Covelli said in a statement that the sheriff’s office has not made arrests in the incident but continues to investigate. He added that businesses usually cooperate with law enforcement in “life or death” situations.
Shepherd had her third son in June. She said it was a miracle he survived, so she named him Noah in reference to Noah’s Ark. While Shepherd is thankful her sons are safe, she said the family’s lives haven’t returned to normal.
Isaiah has nightmares and often wakes up crying and talking about “monsters” and “strangers,” Koutelidakis said. Grayson, who’s now 7, checks the house’s locks multiple times before going to sleep and doesn’t want to leave – even to go to the pet store, which he used to love to visit, Shepherd said.
Shepherd, 35, said she’s still undergoing physical therapy for her elbow. Koutelidakis, 40, said he sold the Volkswagen about a week after the incident. He knew the family couldn’t enter the SUV again.
Shepherd and Koutelidakis saw Volkswagen’s public apology, but they said nobody from the company has contacted them directly. In the lawsuit, which was filed in Cook County Circuit Court, the family accused Volkswagen and Verizon of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
For now, Shepherd and Koutelidakis are trying to provide Isaiah a normal childhood, with the help of a therapist. For his third birthday party next month, Shepherd will buy his favorite foods – cheese pizza, grapes and strawberries – and make him a blue “Paw Patrol”-themed cake.
Shepherd and Koutelidakis said they hope the lawsuit prevents other children from experiencing the same trauma Isaiah was exposed to.
“I have this responsibility for Isaiah to speak up for him,” Shepherd said, “and to demand change.”
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