After viral video, Petaluma couple labeled ‘child abductors,’ wife says
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for a Petaluma couple during a December 2020 trip to Michaels — they never saw the woman whose social media video went viral after she accused them of trying to abduct her children while at the store, the wife testified Tuesday.
Taking the stand in the trial of Katie Sorensen, the former city of Sonoma resident accused of lying to Petaluma police about a kidnapping attempt at the crafts store, Sadie Martinez recounted the events of Dec. 7, 2020.
The trial began Tuesday in Sonoma County Superior Court and Martinez was one of several witnesses questioned during the day’s proceedings. She is expected to continue her testimony Wednesday morning.
Sorensen’s story gained national attention after she posted an Instagram video that attracted views and followers before investigators concluded it was fabricated.
Martinez said she ignored the video at first because her trip to Michaels had gone off without a hitch. Instead, Sorensen’s claims tarnished the Martinezes’ reputation.
“We were forever labeled child abductors,” Sadie Martinez testified.
Sorensen was charged in April 2021 with three misdemeanor counts of making a false report of a crime. If convicted, she could be sentenced to as much as six months in jail for each count or a maximum of 18 months in jail.
Investigators say Sorensen falsely reported that the Martinezes had tried to kidnap her 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter at the Michaels store on North McDowell Boulevard in Petaluma.
In her Instagram video and statements to police, Sorensen claimed the couple followed her while inside the store and could be overheard making comments about her children.
Testimony showed Sorensen told authorities they followed her outside, where they were joined by someone in a white van. Sorensen told investigators they left after she called out to two other people nearby.
“It was absolutely a false report. Never happened,” Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner told jurors during his opening statements Tuesday.
First day in court
Testimony is taking place before Judge Laura Passaglia and a jury of eight men and four women. Two men and a woman make up the small group of alternate jurors.
Sorensen and several friends and family members sat silently as Waner laid out how she “doubled down” on her claims as the investigation progressed in 2020.
Sorensen’s defense attorney, Charles Dresow, countered that the incident occurred while people were experiencing a “higher-level of paranoia” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He urged jurors to acquit his client.
“When Miss Sorensen made those reports, she did not know them to be false,” Dresow said.
The prosecution maintains Sorensen, a would-be social media influencer, was trying to boost her Instagram brand and raise money. In court documents, they also note she was ”in significant engagement with QAnon conspiracy theories, which tend to center around kidnappers and pedophiles.“
Waner presented the Instagram video along with Sorensen’s 911 call from Dec. 7, as well as police body-camera footage of two interviews she had with authorities.
Sorensen appeared to wipe away tears Tuesday as she watched the Instagram video. In it, she appears to feign responsibility for being scared and unable to react to the threat of kidnappers.
“I hope no one gives me flack, because I’m already aware of that,” she said in the video.
Her 10-minute 911 call took place after Sorensen left Michaels.
During the call she told a dispatcher about the three people and the van. The dispatcher tells her to go to the Petaluma Police Department for a formal interview.
She was interviewed by Petaluma police Officer Brendan McGovern, who testified Tuesday that Sorensen appeared calm during their conversation.
“She seemed not necessarily angry or scared,” McGovern told jurors.
The prosecution showed jurors McGovern’s body-camera footage of the interview, which also took place on Dec. 7, 2020. The pair appeared to have a calm exchange. Sorensen, at times, chuckled and giggled.
During the conversation, McGovern called the incident “bizarre” but advised Sorensen he was not sure her story qualified as attempted kidnapping.
Full investigation launched
The matter was put on hold until the following week when the Instagram video surfaced. Prosecutors say it attracted more than 4 million views in less than 24 hours, and Sorensen picked up thousands of followers.
“By that point, the video was being spoken about throughout the entire department,” testified Ed Crosby, a District Attorney’s Office investigator who was a Petaluma police lieutenant in December 2020.
Investigators emphasized that the video included details not presented to authorities when Sorensen first reported the incident. They specifically pointed out that she said, at that time, that the couple tried to grab her son’s stroller.
A full investigation was launched.
The prosecution showed additional body-camera footage from McGovernthat was taken during a Dec. 14, 2020 follow-up interview. This time, Petaluma police Detective Corie Joerger was present.
According to court records, they showed Sorensen a Dec. 7 surveillance photo of the couple she claimed tried to take her children.
She verified they were the people from the store even when she was told the photo would be circulated in an effort to find them in connection with an alleged crime.
The Martinezes came forward after seeing the photos. Sadie Martinez said the public had already given police her family’s name by that point.
“We didn’t have to tell them. They already knew,” she testified.
Police later announced that Sorensen’s claims were without merit and cleared the Martinezes of any alleged wrongdoing.
Investigators said the video footage did not depict the scenario described by Sorensen.
Waner also told jurors they will see additional footage that — despite staff’s and customers’ efforts to social distance — appears to show just another day at the store.
“That’s it. That’s what happened in the store,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at 707-521-5390 and firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @colin_atagi