The FBI has a tested method that increases the chances of your child coming home, but it was one agent in Louisiana whose idea made such an impact that it's spreading across the country. Ysbrand Cosijn
When a child or teen is missing, each second that ticks away is the difference between a happy reunion or devastating heartache.
"911, where's your emergency?"
"Hey, I found baby Rainn and she's alive. This is her. Guaranteed 100 percent. You're OK sweetheart. I swear you're going to be OK," said a joyous man's voice to the 911 operator in Trumbull County, in Ohio in 2015.
"I saw a lot of adults cry in joy that day, so I think it was one of the best things in my law enforcement career, really," said Ernest Cook, the Chief Deputy Sheriff of Trumbull County when Rainn Peterson was found.
On that day in Ohio, it was a happy ending. A two-year-old who disappeared from her home on a cold rainy night, was found a few days later after wandering away from home. They found her just in time, before hypothermia took her life.
But for 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway in Colorado, the 911 call brought a devastating reality.
"I murdered Jessica Ridgeway. I have proof that I did it," Austin Sigg, 17, told the 911 operator in 2012.
"When her remains were found, it was, you know, a horrible day,” said Lee Birk, Chief of the Westminster Police Department. “I'm still emotional about it today."
Each year in the U.S., an average of 100 children are abducted and murdered by strangers. Hundreds of thousands more are missing because they wander off, get lost, run away, meet someone on the internet, are taken in a custody battle, or are missing because of a simple miscommunication. Even in those cases, bad things can happen.
The FBI has hard science and experience on how to run an investigation and increase the chances a child will come home. Or finding and stopping the perpetrator, in case the child doesn’t survive.
In 2006 the FBI formed CARD, the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team. There are five card teams in different regions of the country, so on a moments notice when a child or teen is missing, they can deploy to help local and state law enforcement.
"Why is that important? Because the difference between an hour and two hours on a deployment, and the ability to get out there, could be the difference in somebody living and dying," said Jeffrey Sallet, Special Agent In Charge of the New Orleans Field Office. He begins his new assignment as the SAC in the FBI Chicago Field Office Nov. 6.
FBI CARD teams have deployed 144 times in the last decade. With them, come a wealth of experience, expertise and knowledge of practices that are likely to be more successful. They bring behavior profilers, cyber experts, evidence specialists, forensic canines and laboratory support.
"It's not that we're better investigators, we've just done a lot of these" explained FBI Special Agent Robert King of the CARD Team.
Based in Baton Rouge, King works CARD cases. Local investigators are shown the best way to do road blocks, command posts, organize volunteers and canvass the area.
"The neighborhood is very important because statistically, and fortunately, it may be somebody with ties to the neighborhood. If they don't live in the neighborhood, 66 percent of the time somebody that has ties to that neighborhood has come in there either through cutting the yard, lawns or a worker that did something in the neighborhood." King said.
Time is of the essence. especially the first few hours. Seventy-five percent of abducted children who are murdered, die within three hours. After a day, 80 percent lose their lives. After a week, 97 percent are killed.
The Green Light
It was back in 2014, that Special Agent King had an idea to save more lives of missing children. That was after missing four-year-old Jassiah Clark was found dead from drowning.
"That night, I'm sitting there at home because I'm frustrated, and I'm like, 'You know, it takes our team a while to fly if you call us, depending on where it is, drive time.' I said, 'Why don't we train the state and locals the proper way to do this, form a team and they can be on the scene within 30 minutes and doing all the steps that a CARD Team does,'" King said.
In 2015, he got the green light and J-CARD, the Joint-Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team was formed. The FBI started training local police. Then Special Agent in Charge Sallet said he wanted the week-long training and life-like abduction scenes for practice, replicated across Louisiana.
"They really get something out of it, and several times we've seen 20-year veteran police officers, that don't necessarily like the pretend play, crying at the end of it when they get the child back," King recounts.
By 2018, J-CARD will be active in seven areas of the state.
"Now … when there's a missing child, I can call the J-CARD Team. They're on the scene within 30 minutes. They're doing everything that CARD would do, setting up the road blocks, the canvas," he explained of the local agencies before the FBI CARD Team arrives to work with them.
Knowing that this gives the child a better chance of being found alive, law enforcement in places in Alabama, Virginia and Kansas are calling him for the team training.
"Every officer and agency works side-by-side. There's no fighting, 'Oh like I'm a deputy or I'm the police or here's the FBI. We're all one big family when we go and everyone does the same thing," King said.
Now he hopes there will be fewer heartbroken parents and press conferences like the one in 2012 in Colorado.
"It is with a great deal of sorrow in my heart, I regret to inform you that the body that was found in Arvada, has been positively identified as Jessica Ridgeway, the missing girl from Westminster," Chief Birk said at a podium in front of the media.
Law enforcement agencies say it's best to be very careful about sharing any identifying information about your children online, or in public.
And the FBI says if your child is missing, the first call you should make is to your local FBI field office.
More on the FBI violent and online crimes against children call 410-691-5555 or click here.