Children often are told never to speak to strangers, but when 3-year-old Paul Marshall Jr. was discovered walking along the streets of Linthicum at 3:45 a.m. on July 23, he needed a stranger's help to get home.
Fortunately, Baltimore City firefighter Andrew Hoffman happened by.
Anne Arundel County police say "Paulie" had gotten out of his house, and the toddler was walking alone as Hoffman drove on West Maple Road.
"It kind of startled me. I said to myself, 'Am I seeing this?' " Hoffman said. "I got him and asked him, 'What's the matter, buddy? Where do you live?' And all he could do was point up the road."
The Glen Burnie resident called 911.
"Within about two minutes, police officers arrived, and they were as dumbfounded as I was," he said.
After canvassing the neighborhood, questioning residents and placing calls, officers picked out Paulie's home, stopping when he said, "That's my house." The youngster was reunited with a relieved family.
"This really shocked us," said Paulie's father, Paul Marshall Sr.
"I got a phone call from my neighbor while I was working, and he said, 'Is your son missing?' I said, 'No, not that I know of,' " Marshall recalled. "He said, 'Let me send you a picture,' and he sent me a picture of my son sitting in the front of a cop car. My heart about fell into my stomach.
"This really scared us thinking everything that could have happened, especially at that time of the morning."
On Wednesday, Paulie and his parents came to the Police Department's northern office for a brief meeting to thank Hoffman and police officers for getting him home safe and sound.
"I wanted to thank the chief of police and all the officers who helped Paulie that night, and especially Andy Hoffman," Marshall said.
Marshall said he and Paulie's mother, Kristen Vanskiver, live in a temporary residence because a tree fell on her home during superstorm Sandy last year. Vanskiver said she had fallen asleep on the couch, and when Paulie couldn't locate his mother or father, he unlocked the front door, opened it and went in search of his grandparents.
Lt. Jeffrey Silverman, one of the officers who responded to Hoffman's 911 call, said Paulie told him he left home after seeing monsters at his house.
Police said there was no indication of abuse or neglect, but the family has been advised to install another lock that's out of Paulie's reach.
Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman attended Wednesday's event and joined police in giving Paulie an honorary badge and stuffed animals for him to share with his two siblings.
Asked if he was scared during his late-night walk, Paulie simply said, "Yep."
Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis, who has four children, said he has encountered "a handful" of similar situations in his career. "When it happens,' he said, "what could have been runs through your mind, both as a police officer and a parent."
Vanskiver, 26, said she warns her children against speaking to strangers.
"In this situation, it was good that he did talk to Andy" Hoffman, Marshall said. "It's a fine line. We always tell them, 'When we're with you, it's fine, but when you're alone and you see a stranger, you come find us.' "