National

Strange tale of mother, girls who hid in beach play set

For more than two weeks, 8-year-old Kimberly and 10-year-old Kelley Kong-Kahm hid in the hollow center of a Fort Lauderdale beach plastic playground set with their mother, police said.

They watched children jump and climb above. They heard the giggles, laughs and screams. But the girls never moved, never made a sound.

Instead, they cowered with their mother, Tammy Kong-Kahm, 35, who police say kidnapped them from Philadelphia foster care, then ran with them to South Florida, where they hid inside the playground set near State Road A1A and Sebastian Street.

No one knew they were there.

Police caught on after an officer spotted Kelley at the Galleria mall. She was covered with dirt and ant bites, and begging for food.

Now, officers are searching for her sister and mother as they piece together the bizarre tale of a family that ate, slept and relieved themselves under the play set.

''They heard the children laughing and playing,'' Fort Lauderdale police Detective Kathy Collins said. "And they were stuck under there.''

Their story begins in Philadelphia, where officials decided Kong-Kahm could not take care of her daughters, and put them in foster care, Philadelphia police spokesman Sgt. Ray Evers said.

On Oct. 3, the girls moved into a home on J Street in Philadelphia. They stayed there until Oct. 16, Evers said, when they left for school and never came home. Their foster mother began a frantic search.

''She comes across a school crossing guard who informs her that she sees, we're thinking the girl's mom, taking the kids out of school about 8 a.m.,'' Evers said.

Police searched the city, got an arrest warrant for Kong-Kahm, and talked to the girls' father, who had scant contact with the family, Evers said. On Oct. 25, Philadelphia authorities contacted South Florida police with a possible address for the family. It was a dead end.

Meanwhile, Kong-Kahm and her daughters were wandering around Fort Lauderdale and eventually made their way to the beach.

The play set is modest, made of plastic in shades of green and beige. The play area is raised several feet, with the hollow area below surrounded by plastic walls.

To get inside, the girls and their mother dug through the sand under the plastic, and slipped through the space.

They stayed for several weeks, Collins said, never sitting up for fear someone might see them through the spaces between the plastic panels.

But then Kong-Kahm began to fear that police might find them, and decided they should split up, Collins said. She took Kimberly and left Kelley behind.

The 10-year-old began to wander on her own, and late last week made her way to the Galleria, Collins said, where Detective Amy Hoover spotted her as she begged for food.

Kelley told police she was 18, hailed from New Jersey and had a boyfriend. But nothing backed up her story.

After several days in a Fort Lauderdale hospital, Kelley changed her story, and told police about how she, her mother and sister lived under the play set.

Police checked out the story. They found the crawl space and a stench inside.

Now, police are trying to find Kimberly and Kong-Kahm. Both should have short, shaved hair, police said. Kong-Kahm has tattooed blue eye shadow and a rose tattoo on one foot.

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