By Craig Sailor / The News Tribune
An FBI agent asked only for coffee and donuts Friday morning at his retirement party.
What he got instead was the grown-up version of a baby he rescued from a kidnapper nearly 22 years ago in Lakewood.
That baby is now a 170-pound U.S. Marine Corps Corporal stationed in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
But on Aug. 23, 1997, Stewart Rembert was just a babe in the arms of his mother, Melinda Coen, at St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood.
That’s when a woman sporting a lab coat and implying she was a medical worker bluffed her way past two security checkpoints, walked into the room where baby and mother were resting and offered to take Stewart to the nursery for the night.
About 3 a.m., a floor nurse made a routine check of Coen’s room. She realized the baby was missing and sounded the alarm.
An empty bassinet was found about 50 feet from Coen’s room, next to an exit door.
Sowers was one of 30 investigators the FBI assigned to the case.
The Lakewood Police Department put a dozen detectives on it. News organizations spread information, including a sketch of the woman, throughout the region.
Sowers, then 28, was new to the bureau and assigned to the agency’s Tacoma office.
“I had graduated from the FBI academy approximately two or three months prior to that,” he told The News Tribune on Friday.
Law enforcement officials began zeroing in on a suspect after an employee at a Lakewood Fred Meyer saw a woman shoplift some baby’s clothing while carrying an infant. He followed her, saw her car, then called 911 with a description.
Authorities searched the Fort Lewis home of the suspect, Kimberly K. Skurzewski, 30, and found diapers and other items associated with a newborn — but not Stewart.
Sowers was assigned to interview her. A Lakewood Police detective came along.
“When we really got suspicious talking to her, the local detective went over to the stepdaughter and asked, ‘Where is the baby at?’ The daughter broke down and said, ‘I don’t know. We put him next to a dumpster,’” Sowers recalled Friday afternoon.
When Skurzewski came home with the baby earlier that day, she told her children that she had bought him for $500. When she saw media reports about the kidnapping, she panicked and left the baby behind a store.
Sowers, the Lakewood detective, the kidnapper, stepdaughter and military police got into vehicles and drove around Lakewood looking for the store.
The detective put the command post on alert in case a massive search was needed. But, they weren’t.
“As we pulled up behind that store, right next to the dumpster was a little cardboard box and she pointed to the box and said, ‘He’s in that box,’” Sowers said.
“I jumped out of the car and went over to the box and saw Stewart there and picked him up,” Sowers said. “He wasn’t crying or anything. He was probably exhausted. He was probably laying there a few hours.”
Sowers held Stewart for the few minutes it took for paramedics to arrive.
“We had an agent sitting at the parents’ house so they quickly got word to them that he had been found,” Sowers said.
Sowers, who had a young daughter at the time, said he felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction.
“This is what I came to the FBI for, to do good things like this,” he said. “We had found him, he was alive, he was going to be returned to his parents. It doesn’t get any better than this.
“Working a kidnapping case in the FBI is the quintessential thing that people think about the FBI,” he said. “When you find the victim and the victim is still alive, it’s a great day.”
Skurzewski was sentenced to 10 years in prison, more than seven times the ordinary maximum term for kidnapping.
“It’s clear that what occurred here was outrageous,” Pierce County Superior Court Judge Arthur Verharen told Skurzewski in pronouncing the exceptional sentence. “That baby was taken from his mother’s bed and deposited in the garbage.”
The elder Rembert and Coen reunited with their son at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, where doctors checked Stewart.
“Both of us will be here all night,” Rembert said that day, dabbing at tears. “I’m not going nowhere without my son. He won’t be out of my sight for two seconds. I just thank God and law enforcement.”
St. Clare implemented a variety of improved security measures after Rembert’s abduction.
“We’ve never had an incident like this,” a spokesperson said at the time. “We don’t want to be known for this.”
Coen, 31 at the time, was a bingo caller; Rembert, then 43, worked for the Postal Service. Both had other children. Stewart was their first child together.
Friends, family and co-workers rallied to their sides during the ordeal, visiting their home or sharing information about the disappearance. They disseminated 3,000 fliers — passing some out within a block of where Stewart eventually was found.
“I actually lay down for 20 minutes with Stewart on my chest today,” Rembert Sr said the day after his son was recovered. “I stopped breathing for a minute just to make sure he was breathing.”
The younger Rembert spent the rest of his youth in Tacoma. He played baseball while attending Mount Tahoma High School.
His parents had one more child, Bailei, 19. They now live in Puyallup.
It wasn’t until he was 14 that Rembert became curious about the incident and got a fuller story from his parents.
“I got to thinking, wow, I actually might not have been here. That’s crazy,” Rembert said Friday.
But, he said, he doesn’t think it changed his life.
“It hasn’t impacted me at all,” he said.
“Growing up, from the time I was found to about middle school, they were definitely overprotective,” Rembert said of his parents. “Which is absolutely understandable, given what they went through.”
His parents gave him more freedom when he got to high school.
“They released their grip,” he said.
Rembert joined the Marines straight out of high school. Military service is a tradition in the Rembert family. His father was in the Navy, a brother was in the Marines and a sister was in the Air Force.
“It was only natural,” he said. “I grew up loving hearing about everything the military did.”
Two weeks ago, while at Camp Lejeune, he received a message from one of Sowers’ co-workers. They wanted to bring him to the agent’s retirement party.
He embraced the plan.
“I led a good life,” Rembert said. “He could see all the tribulations of his hard work come to fruition.”
On Friday, Sowers retired as the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville field office.
“In one of my final supervisors’ meetings, I commented that I felt like I’ve had a pretty solid career,” Sowers said. “In the first couple of months I pulled a baby out of a box. And when I ended my career, I got to meet Dolly Parton here in Tennessee.”
His coworkers, professional investigators that they are, started digging and found Rembert. He was on Facebook.
On Friday morning, Sowers had no idea of what was coming.
The story of Rembert’s rescue was retold. A current photo of him was shown on a screen.
“I had a few seconds to tell myself, did they actually bring him here in person?” Sowers recalled.
Rembert walked in the door to a round of applause.
“When I saw him, I had to pause a couple of seconds to keep my composure,” Sowers said.
“It was a wonderful way to leave the bureau,” Sowers said. “To actually see the good he is doing and to meet him on my last day in the office.”
Rembert called meeting Sowers a privilege.
“I was just really ecstatic they would come to me 22 years later,” Rembert said.
Sowers had some fatherly advice for Rembert.
“It’s a cliché, but I told him to continue to pay it forward,” Sowers said. “Do good for others.”