Police say Joi Rivers stopped at the Quick Stop convenience store in Hope Mills around 9 p.m. to buy something to drink. Her 5-year-old son, Eric McNeill, was left in the car with the motor running.
When Rivers came out of the store, the car and her son were gone.
Police say Amanda McCulloch, 45, stole Rivers' car with the boy inside.
"She hasn't given us any idea as to why it happened," says Chief John Hodges of the Hope Mills Police Department.
From 9 p.m. until past midnight, investigators say McCulloch drove around country roads. In the early-morning hours, she let Eric out of the car, leaving the 5-year-old alone in an unfamiliar place.
Vickie Ray, who lives off Old Lowry Road in Robeson County, says she was awakened by Eric's cries.
She says "I opened the door and there he was, just standing there crying. He said 'Where's my mommy?' and I said 'Baby, I'm not your mommy.'"
Ray, who does not have a car or phone, brought Eric inside, gave him a blanket and waited for police to find him.
Around 3 a.m., the stolen, blue Chevrolet Cavalier was spotted near the convenience store where it had been taken. McCulloch was behind the wheel.
Police say she was drunk, possibly on drugs. She eventually led investigators to the general area where she had let Eric out.
Eric was returned to his family waiting outside the Hope Mills police station just before 5 a.m.
Joi says she learned an important lesson that she says she will never forget.
"Always take your child in the store with you, only if it will take a few seconds," she says.
Dwayne Rivers, Eric's uncle, says he is just glad to have his nephew back.
"I really don't think too much of her to steal a car with a little kid inside" says Dwayne Rivers, Eric's uncle. "She did the right thing, she didn't hurt him, so I thank her for that...but she scared everybody all night."
McCulloch told police she is homeless and says she did not know the boy was in the car at first. Prior to this incident, she had criminal record. She is currently in jail on a $250,000 bond. She is charged with kidnapping and felony auto larceny.