When a protective father saw his 2-year-old daughter headed toward a parking lot with an older man, he immediately sprang into action, charged at the stranger and attacked him. But the man who was labeled a child predator on social media told a different side of the story -- he said that he found the lost girl and was simply trying to help her find her parents.
It happened at a park in Lakeland, Florida, on the afternoon of June 24, when Austin Strickland realized with horror that his young daughter had disappeared during a softball game, reports WTVT.
A few minutes later, Strickland, who had been preparing to play, spotted his daughter walking with complete stranger Utpaul Patel, notes WFTS.
"When I got there, I just swung on him," Strickland told WFTS.
According to the worried dad, they were headed toward the parking lot, though Patel said that he was taking her toward the playground. Both were in the same direction.
"He saw that the child was in danger," Lakeland Police Department Sgt. Gary Gross said of Patel, according to WTVT. "She was wandering off and he did the right thing by going to her, getting her attention, trying to find the parents. We had an independent eyewitness that saw him walking around, asking: 'Is this your parents? Is that your father?'"
Though Patel, who is also a father, reportedly was hit with several damaging punches from Strickland, Patel decided not to press charges. Neither man was arrested.
"You're damn right [I punched him]," Strickland said. "I wanted to kill the man. You just don't take someone else's kid and walk to the parking lot or walk in in that direction."
After the altercation, viral social media posts naming Patel as a child predator created so much trouble for him that he had to temporarily leave the neighborhood with his family out of fear for his safety.
Strickland told WFTS that he did not regret beating the man up and was still uncertain whether or not the man was trying to abduct his daughter.
The Lakeland Police Department issued a statement on Facebook confirming that it "thoroughly investigated this incident" and found that "no crime was committed." Patel does not have any criminal history and was at the park visiting friends.
"It is our highest priority to investigate any incidents involving children and the Department stands behind the officer's investigation," says the statement. "It's understandable how parents can possibly be upset in a situation involving a lost child. However, this incident truly involved a good samaritan trying to assist a lost child finding their parents."
The Lakeland PD noted that spreading false information on social media can have legal consequences.