‘Boots on the ground’ to find abducted kids

From front left, Officer Ariel Santiago of the Amsterdam Police Department, FBI Special Agent David Fallon and state Division of Criminal Justice Services investigating supervisor Timothy Williams lead a discussion on missing persons during the Fifth Friday Speaker Series at Fulton-Montgomery Community College on Friday.

JOHNSTOWN — The FM Foundation of Fulton-Montgomery Community College hosted a discussion on missing persons with local, state and federal law enforcement members as part of the Fifth Friday Speaker Series.

The Fifth Friday Speaker Series is sponsored by the FM Foundation, featuring guests seeking to educate students and community members on emergent topics through public discourse.

Friday’s event at the Allen House featured a discussion with FBI Special Agent David Fallon, Officer Ariel Santiago of the Amsterdam Police Department who currently serves as a school resource officer and state Division of Criminal Justice Services investigating supervisor Timothy Williams who are each trained Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team members.

According to Fallon, abduction time is of the essence for law enforcement as 74 percent of abducted victims are killed within the first three hours. After 24 hours, that statistic grows to 88 percent of victims killed following abduction.

“Boots on the ground, acting fast and knowing what to do gives us the best chance of finding that kid,” Fallon said.

The FBI Card team is deployed at the request of state and local law enforcement agencies to assist in the search and investigation of missing children. To provide a faster response, the FBI began forming Joint-Child Abduction Rapid Deployment teams in 2015, training local and state police to enable a response within 20 minutes of a reported missing child.

“We want a group of individuals in an area who have the same or similar expertise that we do on a national level,” Fallon said. “If I get deployed to North Carolina, it’s going to take me eight hours to get there and if I have police officers on the ground who are trained in FBI investigative procedures, we can go and get those guys in 20 minutes to the house.”

By the same token, if a child is missing it should be reported as quickly as possible. Williams noted that many people believe there is a waiting period to report someone missing, but this is not the case.”

“There’s actually a New York state law that says there is no waiting period and no law enforcement agency in New York can establish one,” Williams said.

“There is no 24 hour waiting period, if your kid is missing call the police. If you see what you think is an attempted abduction, you call the police. Law enforcement will respond,” Fallon added.

Fallon noted that children may go missing for a variety of reasons including innocuous instancessuch as children wandering off in department stores, hiding in the house or miscommunications between parent and children over plans that can result in parents not to knowing where their children have gone when they are simply out with friends.

Things become more serious when children run away, fall victim to an online predator, commit suicide or are abducted. According to Fallon, stereotypical abductions committed by strangers or acquaintances are uncommon, with only 105 to 115 such cases carried out each year on average for the last 30 years.

“We do have tons of missing kid cases every year, but thankfully there aren’t that many strangers or acquaintances out there abducting kids,” Fallon said.

This fact aids investigators searching for missing children who begin their investigation by searching every inch of the child’s home to ensure the child has not suffered an accident or been harmed by a family member. Investigators then focus on learning about the child and their family to discover more about the victim.

“What problems do we have in these cases? We have lots of them, right? Do we have a victim like a homicide a person lying on the street in a pool of blood? No. Do we have witnesses to these things? Sometimes. Do we have any evidence? Sometimes. Do we have a crime scene, do we know where the kid was taken from? Sometimes, not very often. It’s a big problem, because there is a giant hole in the world when a kid is missing, we need to act fast,” Fallon said.

“We know one thing, we know who our victim is, that’s the one absolute we know in these cases,” he continued. “We want to figure out why that victim was selected. What made them available, vulnerable and desirable to a bad guy, it might be one of those three things and that might help us identify our offender and find the kid faster.”

From there, investigations are escalated to include neighborhood canvassing, setting up roadblocks, reviewing footage captured on surveillance cameras and generally talking to people to try to develop information.

“The single most important tactic,” Fallon said, “is thorough and organized neighborhood investigation, knocking on doors, asking questions, finding out who was in the neighborhood, what connection they have to the neighborhood.”

“I know that even if he’s not a resident of the neighborhood, two-thirds of the time, he has a connection to that neighborhood, he’s in that area for a legitimate reason. We have to find the witness who saw that person,” Fallon continued, showing slides of several victims who had been abducted by men he described as “creepy” neighbors.

Fallon illustrated these points discussing the 2012 abduction and murder of Jessica Ridgeway, a 10-year-old girl from Colorado.

Ridgeway went missing while walking to school, her mother became aware that she was missing in the afternoon and went out to look for her before calling police. Ridgeway was last seen walking alone along the street the morning she went missing.

Two days later her backpack containing her clothing was found in the driveway of a residence more than six miles from her home by the homeowner who posted about the discovery online thinking it was merely left there by mistake. Police collected the bag and identified Ridgeway’s DNA and that of an unknown individual on the backpack.

The DNA matched that of an unidentified man who had previously attacked a female jogger in a nearby park. The woman fought the man off before he ran away.

The woman had provided police a description of the attacker and her clothing which they recovered DNA from. Officers used the description while canvassing neighborhoods, collecting voluntary DNA samples from males matching the profile. Investigators collected and processed 450 DNA samples without finding a match.

During this process, Ridgeway’s dismembered torso was located in a garbage bag near the entrance to a landfill six days after she went missing.

Later during the investigation, an area woman who had spoken to police during the neighborhood canvassing, contacted an officer to say she had noticed suspicious behavior by her teenage neighbor, Austin Sigg. Police went and spoke with the 17-year-old boy, who was not interviewed initially as he did not fit the profile of the man described by the jogger due to his young age.

Officers collected the teen’s DNA sample at his mother’s insistence. The sample proved to be a match for the DNA on the backpack and Sigg admitted to the killing. Ridgeway’s remains were found in the crawl space of Sigg’s home.

According to Fallon, Sigg told police that he had been looking for a victim and abducted Ridgeway as she walked by his parked vehicle. He had raped and killed her within the first hour. He ultimately received two life sentences for the crime.

“We get a lot of leads called into us, almost the first thing out of everyone’s mouth is, ‘I don’t know if it really warranted me calling, but I decided to,’” Williams said. “If you even had the thought about it, it’s better to call and start a process and have it looked into than not. I think the mentality sometimes in the general public is, ‘I don’t want to bother the police, they’re handling this or the other thing,’ but for us even the smallest thing sometimes plays out into something like that, that can be followed up on.”

“That’s how we solve these crimes, the basics,” Fallon added.

By Patricia Older

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