The kindness of strangers
Escalating argument triggers a parent’s worst nightmare
Ashley Hatton said her 15-year-old daughter, Shaylee Smith, ran away from their Village Green home early after noon Saturday, Jan. 26, following several days of arguing over a midweek “vaping” incident at Farragut High School.
“I really never had any trouble with her,” said Hatton, who added she was caught off guard by the incident and the escalating disagreement between the two. “She was always a good kid and got good grades. She was very loving and sweet. I just didn’t know where this all came from.”
Following Shaylee’s abrupt departure, Hatton called 911, and Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputies responded and searched for Shaylee without success.
What followed was nearly nine hours of fear and anguish as Hatton tried to find her daughter.
“As a parent, this is your worst nightmare,” she said, breaking down in tears several times during a phone interview Sunday evening, Jan. 27. “Was she kidnapped? Lying in a ditch somewhere? Was she cold? Hungry? Raped?”
Hatton called neighbors and friends of the teen, and tried to track down acquaintances through various social media apps, including Instagram and Snapchat. She also had a friend share pictures of Shaylee on Facebook before turning to the nextdoor.com website for help.
“I posted pictures of her and asked if anyone saw her, to let me know, and I listed my phone number asking them to call,” she said.
That post garnered dozens of responses, from possible sightings to messages of support from neighbors and strangers — all hoping to help find Shaylee.
She had a report Shaylee might be in Hickory Woods, then another post said they might have seen the girl near Kohl’s. Yet another person called and said they thought Shaylee was at Walmart, “looking for a ride,” Hatton said.
Hatton and two of Shaylee’s friends fruitlessly searched Walmart for 40 minutes, she said, before she returned to her car overwhelmed with grief.
“I spent 30 minutes in the Walmart parking lot (after that), just crying,” Hatton said “It was going on 9 o’clock and it was 30 degrees. My daughter was somewhere wearing just ripped jeans and no coat.”
She said she “was frustrated” and felt no one in an official capacity was helping to find her daughter.
“I felt so helpless and couldn’t get anyone to help me but my neighbors,” Hatton said. “Then a man called and said he was at Walmart and, ‘I think I have found your daughter. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I think it is her.’”
The man, identified later only as Mac, said he would keep an eye on who he believed was Shaylee until her mother arrived. The girl was elusive, and disappeared from Mac’s view, then both he and Hatton began searching the store before finding Shaylee near the rear of the building.
“She started to run, and he stood in the aisle and wouldn’t let her by,” Hatton said.
“She said she was not going home with me, then Mac just hugged my daughter and asked if he could pray with her. He just holds (onto) my daughter, and prays and prays and prays,” she added. “Him praying for her helped 110 percent. She was in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, and she just stopped struggling, and cried.
“He told her everything would be OK.”
Roughly two years ago, “his daughter went through the same thing, which is why he and his wife began looking for Shaylee,” said Hatton, who also discovered Mac had been to Walmart earlier in the day looking for the teen and not finding her.
“But something told him to go back and look again. He said, ‘Something told me to go back to Walmart, and I was at the right place and the right time and knew that was her,’” she added.
They shared a meal.
“He told Shaylee she must be hungry, and we climbed into the back of his car, and he took us to Chick-fil-A,” Hatton said. “(Mac) called his wife, who is a counselor, on speaker phone, and they both talked to my daughter and gave her positive reinforcement.
“He said his daughter ‘is so awesome’ and they were ‘on the other side’ of their own experience (with her),” she added.
Hatton said Mac planned to ask his daughter if she might meet with Shaylee, so they could talk.
“It was just so awesome that so many people cared,” she added. “People texted me and messaged me and drove around and looked for her. But knowing that a stranger on a Saturday night felt he didn’t look (enough) the first time but decided to go back … I told (Mac), ‘Your are a Godsend, you are our angel.’”