One of the first things Sakinah Booker wants people to understand about her 9-year-old son is that he isn't a juvenile delinquent. That string of car...

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LAKEWOOD, Pierce County — One of the first things Sakinah Booker wants people to understand about her 9-year-old son is that he isn’t a juvenile delinquent.

That string of car thefts? Leading police on a car chase at 90 mph? Conning his way onto two airline flights? That was Semaj Booker’s way of getting out of his Lakewood neighborhood and a desperate cry for help, she said.

“He hated it here and he was seeking a strong male figure,” said the 29-year-old single mother of four. “I’ve raised these four boys by myself and I’ve been a good mother, but he was seeking a strong male figure and he couldn’t get that from me.”

While many kids foster occasional thoughts of running away from home, Semaj (pronounced Sama-jay) has taken it to a whole new level. His efforts to leave behind his neighborhood, with its nearby string of small casinos, run-down fast-food joints and paintball-gun-toting bullies, have thrust the boy and his family into an unwelcome spotlight.

It also landed the boy in trouble with Pierce County prosecutors, who on Wednesday filed criminal charges against Semaj for allegedly stealing a car and leading police on a high-speed chase on Sunday, the day before his airline odyssey.

On Monday, hoping to return to Dallas, where the family once lived and where a grandfather resides, Semaj talked his way aboard a Southwest Airlines flight at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, according to Lakewood police. The flight took him to Phoenix, where he talked his way onto a second flight to San Antonio, where he was detained before he could board a flight to Dallas.

Semaj, all of 80 pounds and 4-foot-9, was being held Wednesday at a shelter for runaways in San Antonio.

“He was incredibly motivated to get to Texas, and he’s incredibly resourceful,” said Lakewood police Lt. David Guttu.

While the boy’s aim may have been to return to Dallas, the fact that he was able to make it aboard an airliner without a ticket has raised questions about security.

It also prompted local and national media to come knocking on Sakinah Booker’s door, anxious to understand what motivated the boy’s travels.

As Sakinah and her other children tell it, her son hated their rough-hewn neighborhood since the family moved in nine months ago.

“It’s rough,” said his 11-year-old brother, Demarius Booker, who said his brother was shot by older kids with paintball guns within days of their arrival. “We hear [neighbors] making dogs fight and cats fight around here at night.”

Demarius said he didn’t know of his brother’s plans to return to Dallas. “If I’d known. I would have stopped him,” he said.

By his mother’s count, this was the ninth time Semaj had run away from home since moving to Lakewood.

Guttu said Semaj on Sunday stole an Acura that was left running outside a neighbor’s house, only to be spotted by police near Interstate 5 and Highway 512. Police pursued the car on Highway 512 at speeds up to 90 mph until he took an exit and the engine blew. The car then went over a curb and coasted into a tree.

The boy refused to come out of the car, so officers broke a window to unlock a door and immediately recognized him as a frequent runaway and car thief, Guttu said. Last month, he had crashed a stolen car before being caught by police in Tacoma, and more recently he was caught in Seattle in a stolen car that had run out of gas, his mother said.

At wits’ end, Sakinah told police not to bring her son home if he got into more trouble. But after the police chase, officials at Remann Hall, Pierce County’s juvenile-detention center, refused to admit him, partly because of his young age.

“Putting a 9-year-old in our facility with our population is not a good thing,” said Shelly Maluo, the county’s juvenile-court administrator.

As a result, he was taken home. But by 6 a.m. Monday he was again reported missing.

The next day, Guttu said, police got a call from a juvenile lockup in San Antonio. The caller on the other end of the line said, “We’ve got your runaway.”

According to Southwest Airlines, Semaj managed to get aboard a Phoenix-bound flight from Seattle by claiming to be the child of an adult passenger.

Beth Harbin, spokeswoman for the Dallas-based airline, said the boy told ticketing agents he was 12 and that his mother was waiting for him inside the terminal. The boy’s information matched that of a paid, ticketless reservation for the flight and he was issued a boarding pass, she said.

As Sakinah understands it, her son waited at the gate until he heard a passenger’s name called, then put his hand up and said, “That’s me.”

Because the boy claimed to be 12, he was not listed as an “unaccompanied minor,” which covers travel by children from ages 5 through 11, Harbin said. And because he was so young he wasn’t required to provide identification to board a flight.

Once the flight arrived in San Antonio, the boy tried to board another flight to Dallas, but didn’t have information that matched a reservation, Harbin said. When he refused to give airline employees information on a contact person, he was turned over to San Antonio police, said David Hebert, spokesman for the San Antonio International Airport.

The airline is investigating the incident to figure out if changes need to be made at ticket counters. So far, the protocol for checking in children too young for identification is unchanged, Harbin said.

“As we continue to look at all of the details in this situation, if there are opportunities for us to learn we’ll be eager to do that,” she said.

Sakinah Booker, who had been attending Bates College with the hope of running a Starbucks store one day, said she and her boys have lived a somewhat nomadic life. She said Semaj is clever and suspects he learned to drive by playing video games.

She said she and the two older boys had lived with her father for a spell several years ago and Semaj probably recalls that as a time of stability and well-being.

Demarius, the boy’s older brother, said Semaj remembers his grandfather warmly because he used to wrestle with the boys. Semaj’s father isn’t involved with the child.

Sakinah Booker is not sure what’s going to happen to her son now. She doesn’t want to move back to Texas without a job and her older son likes the friends he’s made in Lakewood. She admits she can’t control Semaj. Her father told her that he would not come pick up the boy, she said, but her sister in Illinois has offered to take him.

Sakinah says her son is extremely bright and determined. But his recent troubles prompted her to turn to her pastor for guidance, and she brought along Semaj.

“My pastor shook his hand and told him: ‘You’re a genius, you just don’t know it. Now let it lead you to brilliance and not to the street.’ “

Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or