UPDATED at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday with more details from police.
ST. LOUIS COUNTY • A newspaper delivery driver making his rounds before dawn this morning found two children outside in 13-degree temperatures in west St Louis County while adults were sleeping in a locked home.
Now immigration authorities and state Family Support Division workers are investigating because police found a gas leak and higher-than-normal carbon monoxide levels inside the home.
The driver discovered the 1-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy outside the home along Fee Fee Road near Ross Road in unincorporated west St. Louis County. They were wearing coats, but the girl was barefoot and standing on ice. The home was locked, and three men inside were asleep. Five other children ranging from an infant to 15 years old also were inside, said St. Louis County Officer Randy Vaughn.
Police said the father of the toddlers had dropped them off at his brother's home, let them inside and then left. Police believe the children got out of the house on their own after their father left and before the other adults awoke, Vaughn said. The mother was at work, police said.
Police were not immediately able to determine how long the children were outside because of a language barrier. The children and the adults in the home speak only Spanish. A Spanish-speaking officer has been investigating, Vaughn said.
Inside the home police discovered a minor gas leak and higher-than-normal carbon monoxide levels, Vaughn said. Gas company representatives responded. The family also was using an alternative heating source, Vaughn said.
The county has posted an order to vacate the premises and has notified immigration officials about the incident, Vaughn said.
"Criminal charges will depend on DFS and if they find evidence of neglect," Vaughn said.
At about 5 a.m., Post-Dispatch carrier William Brandon Mueller was driving his morning route in unincorporated St. Louis County, when he saw the pair standing at the end of the driveway. The area is just southwest of the interchange between Interstate 270 and Page Avenue.
Mueller, 30, said he knows to stay alert on Fee Fee because it's a busy stretch and deer are active there. The girl's pink, hooded jacket caught his eye, he said — otherwise, he might have kept driving.
"I didn't see any parents," he said. "I thought, 'This isn't right.'"
He turned his van around in a parking lot across the street and parked in the grass. As he approached the children in the dark, the boy darted to the front porch of the home. The girl remained on the driveway, in tears.
"I said, 'Where's your mommy? Where's your daddy?'" said Mueller, of St. Charles, who works a second job as a security officer at Chesterfield Mall. "My instincts kicked in from doing security at the mall. I knew I needed to get a hold of a parent. I assisted the best I could."
Mueller said he picked up the girl and went to the front door, where he knocked and rang the bell for several minutes. No one answered.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," Mueller said.
Mueller called 911. The dispatcher asked if he had put the children in his vehicle, but Mueller says he chose not to because he didn't want anyone getting the wrong impression.
"My feeling was that the parents would wake up and see the kids in the van," he said.
The home was lit up with exterior Christmas lights, but the doors were locked, police said. Officials don't know how the children got out or how long they had been outside when Mueller found them.
The boy was stone-faced and appeared as if he thought he had gotten in trouble, Mueller said. Mueller couldn't get any details out of the kids, but realized that they spoke only Spanish.
When the first St. Louis County police officer arrived, the officer banged on the front door some more. They put the children in the police car to warm up. The children were too afraid to talk, police said. Mueller used the little bit of Spanish he knew to try to communicate with the kids.
Paramedics checked the children at the scene, and they didn't appear to have frostbite. They were taken to a hospital for evaluation.
Another officer arrived and was shining a flashlight through the home's windows to see if someone was inside. Mueller said he could hear another child inside the home, crying.
Sometime after 6 a.m., one of the adults in the home came to the door.
Vaughn said the delivery man did the right thing. Vaughn said he can only speculate how badly things might have turned out otherwise.
"Who's to say these folks may not still be asleep?" Vaughn said hours later. "And who's to say (the children) would stay on the driveway? Fee Fee is a very busy road. It's dark."
Mueller said: "I'm happy the kids were safe."
Christine Byers of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.