HAGERSTOWN -- Tearful Wolfgang Nester said yesterday that he and his wife abandoned their 3 1/2 -year-old son at a Southern California shopping mall earlier this month because they didn't know what else to do when they were without food, money, clothing and a car.
"We were just really scared," said Mr. Nester, wiping tears from his eyes during an interview at the Washington County Sheriff's Department. "We had no way to feed him. We figured without food, money or diapers . . . what else could we do? We didn't know what else to do."
The 23-year-old unemployed father, a thin, blond man dressed yesterday in green plaid shorts and a sweat shirt, said, "We found a definite area where we knew he'd be found. We knew he would have food. There were workers all around. We walked away in tears. We had concerns."
Mr. Nester and his wife, Lisa, both of whom have histories of drug-related problems, were stopped by authorities along the Appalachian Trail near the Maryland-Pennsylvania line Monday afternoon, about a month after their son, Wolfie, was found wandering at a Montgomery Ward store in San Bernardino.
Police arrested Mrs. Nester, 24, whose family lives in Boonsboro, on a bench warrant stemming from nonpayment of child support related to her four other children, all of whom are in her mother's custody. Police did not arrest Mr. Nester because California authorities had not yet issued warrants for the couple's arrests. Those warrants -- charging each with child abandonment and endangerment -- were issued yesterday.
But Mr. Nester agreed after being picked up on the trail to cooperate with Washington County authorities, and he surrendered yesterday morning after spending the night at a friend's house, he said. Both he and his wife are being held at the Washington County Detention Center while awaiting extradition to face the California charges.
Their son remained in a California foster home yesterday.
Richard N. Ziolkowski, a Washington County investigator, said the couple has given police conflicting reasons for their trip to California, but otherwise, their stories about what happened once they got there are the same. He said Mrs. Nester told police the couple went to California to start a new life together after being separated for several months.
"I'm just glad no one got hurt in all of this," Mr. Ziolkowski said. "I think they were scared enough that they could have made some very wrong decisions."
Mr. Nester told police and reporters yesterday that the couple drove to California because he feared for his life. A man about to be released from prison in Maryland intended to kill him, Mr. Nester said, but he would not elaborate.
Whatever the cause for their trip west, the couple's new life hit a snag as soon as they arrived on the West Coast.
Mr. Nester said the family walked out of a coffee shop in Highland, Calif., to find police around their car, which had stolen plates.
Fearful of being arrested, he, his wife and their son walked away, Mr. Nester said, first to a friend's house, then to a relative's and then to several churches, seeking help. All their belongings were in the car, which police towed and still have.
Neither the friend nor the relative, Mr. Nester's grandmother, was home, and the churches were closed, he said. The couple then decided to walk several miles to a mall in San Bernardino, he said. There, they walked away from their son, who was concentrating on something he saw, in the presence of store workers. Wolfie said nothing, Mr. Nester said.
The couple then hitchhiked back to Maryland, where, Mr. Nester said, they immediately embarked on the Appalachian Trail. He said they hoped to make it to Canada to start a new life but turned south after his wife twisted her ankle. They also were afraid of cold weather once they reached Canada.
"We figured it would be winter by the time we got to Canada," he said.
Reports that the couple bragged about leaving their son are false, Mr. Nester said.
"That's absolutely not the case. There's been a lot of slander. Most of it is absolute bull," he said.
Mr. Nester said he never believed his son would be harmed despite being left alone. He was hopeful Wolfie would be sent to relatives in California. The couple only learned their son was safe after returning to Maryland.
Asked whether he wanted his son back, Mr. Nester said, "Of course, I want to get Wolfie back." He said he believed his wife felt the same way.
Attempts to interview her yesterday were unsuccessful.
"I have been a great father to my son," Mr. Nester said. "I can't say I made the right decision. . . . I had nowhere else to go. I didn't want to subject him to going hungry for a long period of time. We both love him."
Told of her brother's statements yesterday, Mr. Nester's sister, Barbara Young, who lives with their parents in Smithsburg, said: "I wish [he] would have used his head better and thought about it a lot more. But he may have done the best he could at the time."