‘Should have been a red flag’: Utah mom sues after school released her child to a stranger

Emilee Winston is now suing Iron County School District for $300,000.

(Trent Nelson) Cedar City as the sun sets on Thursday Jan. 10, 2019. A Cedar City mother is now suing a Iron County School District for releasing one of her kids to a stranger in November 2020, which started a wild case that included her 5-month-old baby being abducted.

Update: A judge dismissed this lawsuit, saying the school district had immunity from the claims.

A mother is suing a southern Utah school district for releasing one of her kids to a stranger — which kicked off a wild 48 hours that included a police chase, an Amber Alert and the arrest of a woman for allegedly trying to sell the mom’s 5-month-old baby in another state.

Emilee Winston, a 26-year-old mother of three living in Cedar City, filed the lawsuit against Iron County School District in district court last month. She says that the school district failed to protect her child by allowing someone unknown to her, and not on the approved list she filed with the district, to pick up her daughter in November 2020.

The chain of events that followed, she alleges, partly stemmed from that critical mistake.

“That should have been a red flag for the school,” Winston said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “I can’t get over what happened.”

She is asking for $300,000 in damages for what she sees as the district’s negligence.

Winston is also suing Emily Luciano, the 32-year-old woman accused of trying to sell her baby for adoption in Colorado. Luciano is currently in jail in Iron County after pleading guilty last fall to felony kidnapping.

Luciano’s attorney from her criminal case did not return a request for comment. Luciano wrote a letter from jail that is included in the court docket and says she needs more time to respond to the lawsuit.

Iron County School District directed questions to the Utah Attorney General’s Office. A spokesperson for the office pointed to the motion to dismiss from Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, which claims the district cannot be held liable because it is immune under state statute from claims concerning mental anguish.

In the lawsuit, Winston notes that she met Luciano in a Facebook group for babysitting. Winston reached out to the woman in late summer 2020 to watch her three kids, who were then 5 months, 2 years and 5 years old.

Luciano, Winston said, took care of the kids while Winston worked, for about four or five months. And it went smoothly. Sometimes, Winston said, she would take turns and watch Luciano’s two foster children. And the two moms became friends, she said. They would go to the pool together or out to dinner.

In October, though, Winston said she stopped talking to Luciano for a bit. The two shared a housekeeper, as well, and the housekeeper told Winston that Luciano wasn’t paying her. The housekeeper advised Winston to pick up her kids one night so they wouldn’t see her yell at Luciano for the money she was owed, Winston recalled.

Someone also told Winston, according to the lawsuit, that Luciano was not taking good care of her kids and that Luciano was claiming to others that Winston’s kids were her own.

Winston said she talked to Luciano and said it all seemed like a misunderstanding. Luciano told her she missed Winston’s kids and they reconnected.

Shortly after, Winston said, Luciano asked if she could drive her three kids to Salt Lake City for a party. Winston recounts saying no, that it felt too far away. She stayed home from work that day instead.

Winston said, looking back on it, those events seemed “not really like red flags.”

Released from school

But things turned one day in early November.

Winston tested positive for COVID-19, which she believes she got from her job. Her employer had called to tell her that a co-worker had caught the virus, and Winston was likely exposed. She took the test that day.

Her oldest daughter was already at school, South Elementary, by that time. And her other two kids, her 2-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son, were with Luciano.

Winston said after she got her test results, she called Luciano to see if the babysitter could watch her kids over a few nights, until she was no longer contagious. Luciano, she said, agreed and told her it was no problem.

Winston asked Luciano to pick up her oldest daughter from school that day. And she called the school to let the staff there know that would be happening.

The only other people Winston had on an approved list with the school to pick up her kids, other than herself, was their former step-father. It is Iron County School District’s policy to have that list on file for all kids who are picked up, according to a copy of the procedure included in the lawsuit.

But that day, Luciano sent another woman, whom Winston did not know — and whom she didn’t find out about until later — to pick up the child. The lawsuit and police statements note that Luciano had already been paying that woman, as well as a second woman, to watch Winston’s kids in the months prior without her knowledge.

The school released the child to the woman without question, though, Winston said — never asking for her identification. And her daughter, who has autism, wouldn’t have known to not go with the woman or to speak up, Winston added. She believes the school failed in its obligations with that.

South Elementary, according to its policy, requires that “if the person picking up a student is not the parent, prior parental approval is required and the person picking the student up must be on the authorized Power School contact list or they will not be allowed to take the student.”

When she later questioned why that policy was broken, she said, she was told by administrators “maybe you need to fix your schedule” so she could pick up her own kids. She said they blamed her.

After the woman picked up Winston’s oldest kid, the lawsuit and police documents state, Luciano then dropped off the middle child to also be babysat by the woman.

Then, Luciano took the baby boy with her and went to Colorado.

‘I hope I’m just exaggerating’

Winston said that Luciano told her she was taking the three kids to a birthday party in Beaver after she went to a dentist appointment. But when the mom checked in, things started to feel off, Winston said.

Luciano apparently told Winston that her phone was broken because one of the kids spilled water on it. But she could see Luciano still posting on social media. Then, Luciano said her car broke down, and later sent coordinates for a location that didn’t exist in Fillmore, saying they were now visiting one of her relatives there.

She sent a photo of the kids, but they weren’t wearing the clothes they’d had on that morning — in fact, Winston said, they weren’t wearing clothes that she had bought them. She didn’t recognize the outfits at all.

“I started freaking out,” Winston said. “It wasn’t making sense. She was completely lying to me.”

At first, Winston thought she was losing it or that COVID-19 was affecting her thinking.

“I hope I’m making the assumption wrong that my kids aren’t kidnapped,” she said she thought at the time. “I hope I’m just exaggerating.”

Winston tried calling but Luciano didn’t pick up. Then Winston started getting texts from unknown numbers. One of them said her kids were at a home in Cedar City. The messages all turned out to be from Luciano, according to court documents.

Winston called police and told them what was happening. And her two oldest children were found at the home of the woman who had gone to the school earlier.

Her 5-month-old baby was missing, though. Police sent out an Amber Alert.

Winston remembers thinking: “Is he dead?” She said, “He’s this four-month-old innocent little baby. He can’t communicate.”

Officers with Cedar City police pinged Luciano’s phone and it showed her location in Colorado. They called federal officers, who stopped Luciano at the international airport in Denver. She had the baby with her.

Winston was reunited with her youngest child in the evening of Nov. 7, 2020, about 48 hours later.

Investigators later discovered, according to the probable cause statement, that Luciano had been in contact with an adoption agency in Colorado. She pretended to be a 17-year-old mother, messages showed, and allegedly intended to sell the baby for cash.

She was arrested and later pled guilty to felony kidnapping in August 2021. She was sentenced to a year in prison; the start of that was delayed several times because Luciano was pregnant and also needed back surgery.

‘We trusted the school district’

Luciano will be released in about a month and a half after serving three months. She will be on probation for four years when she is released.

Winston said she fears Luciano returning to Cedar City. Her kids are now 2, 4 and 7, and she also worries about the impact the events have had on them all.

Her oldest daughter, she said, blamed herself. Her middle child is now nervous any time someone she doesn’t know talks to her. Winston has PTSD and depression and couldn’t go back to work for months, she said. Every time a new Amber Alert sounds on her phone, Winston said, she drops to the floor in tears.

She said she can’t bring herself to let her kids play outside the house. And it took a year for her to enroll them in a day care so she could return to a job. Her oldest daughter also now wears an Apple Watch so she can track her location; she is attending a different school that is not part of Iron County School District.

“We trusted this woman,” she said. “And we trusted the school district. You see it all over in the news, but you never think you are going to be that parent who it happens to.”

Now, she said, she is planning to move her family out of the state for safety. But she wants things to change moving forward, particularly with the school district. She wants them to follow policy and not potentially endanger children by releasing them to strangers. She wants them to check IDs and be sure a person is approved by parents to be with their kids.

She hopes that would have stopped Luciano in some way, with not having help from the other woman in picking up the oldest girl from school.

Winston said she is grateful she got her kids back. But the impacts linger, she said, and “I don’t want this to happen to other families.”

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