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Team Adam: Providing Missing Child Search Support for Police Agencies

By Robert G. Lowery Jr., Executive Director, Missing Children’s Division, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; former Assistant Chief of Police, Florissant, Missouri; and former Commander, Greater Saint Louis Major Case Squad Violent Crime/Homicide Task Force



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he search for six-year-old Zachary Bello was growing by the hour, with hundreds and hundreds of volunteers in Saint George, Utah, showing up to help police look for the little boy in the diaper and Sponge Bob Crocs. His medical condition, Fragile X, which causes autistic-like behaviors, was going to make it harder to find him, explained Henry Schmidt, a search and rescue expert, to the search team. Loud noises upset Zachary, and the child might not respond if someone calls out to him.1

It had been nearly 19 hours—the longest a child had been missing in the city—since Zachary was last seen by neighbors on the front porch of his apartment building, and Police Chief Marlon Stratton turned to Schmidt for advice on what to do next. Schmidt, a Team Adam consultant deployed to Saint George by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), suggested that police return to the location where Zachary was last seen and conduct a methodical search, checking every apartment, every vehicle trunk, any place someone could hide a child.

Zachary was found safe, sleeping in a closet in a nearby vacant apartment.2

“It was nice for me to be able to go to Henry and ask his advice,” said Stratton, who had not heard of Team Adam before Zachary went missing on June 12, 2010. “I’m one who has a lot of respect for experience. I’m the kind of guy who is not too proud to ask for help. I learned so much from Henry. What a great resource.”3


571 Missing Children, 46 States

In the seven years since it was launched, Team Adam has quietly expanded its reach, with consultants helping search for 571 critically missing children in 46 states. After Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, Team Adam helped to reunite 5,192 children who had become separated from their families during the unprecedented evacuation. Team Adam also has assisted with eight child exploitation cases.

Named after the abducted and murdered son of NCMEC cofounders John and Reve Walsh, Team Adam was established as a vehicle to get the best investigative tools and latest technology to the nation’s nearly 16,000 local law enforcement agencies, more than half of which have fewer than 15 officers. 4 Critically missing children cases can be complex and costly and can generate national media attention, putting a strain on already strapped agencies.

Currently, Team Adam has 59 consultants, all retired from local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies and selected in a competitive process for their experience in the fields of child abduction and child sexual exploitation, said Priscilla Stegenga, Team Adam coordinator. They are selected for assignments based on their expertise and proximity to the incident, she said.5

Their mission is mandated by Congress: Rapidly deploy anywhere in the United States where critical cases are unfolding; provide-on-the-ground technical assistance; and connect local law enforcement and victim families with a national network of resources.

“Time is the enemy in missing child cases,” said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of NCMEC. “If the investigating agency hasn’t experienced a child abduction, they might not know how to react, and that is why Team Adam is so important. These specialists will be there to provide resources from their own years of experience and extensive knowledge and access to NCMEC’s 24-hour search network.”6

Stratton, who has been in law enforcement 25 years and has spent the last 10 as Saint George’s police chief, was most impressed that Schmidt “wasn’t forceful at all – he was just there to help us and make recommendations.”7 That is precisely Team Adam’s role, a class of new recruits was told during a one-week intensive training session at NCMEC headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Program Manager Robert Hoever explained that the Missing Children’s Assistance Act gives NCMEC the authority to respond to critically missing child and exploitation cases, but the investigating agency decides what kind of help it wants. Consultants are there to enhance, not to interrupt, he said.8 Once on the scene, consultants explain the free services available to the agency: search-and-rescue expertise; computer forensics; technical support; emotional support for families; case analysis; equipment; bloodhounds; drones; or something as simple, yet as necessary, as gas for a helicopter or satellite phones for searching remote areas.


‘Best-Kept Secret in Law Enforcement’

Team Adam consultants become the eyes and ears in the field for NCMEC’s 19 case managers who tap into the center’s resources. The consultants are instructed not to talk to the media about their roles unless the agency requests them to do so. Because there is little publicity about the program, many law enforcement agencies are not aware of the program or the resources available to them until Team Adam consultants show up at their doorsteps.

“We’re the best-kept secret in law enforcement, and yet the resources we supply are for law enforcement,” said Hoever, who joined NCMEC after retiring from the New Jersey State Police after 26 years.9

Ben Ermini, who oversaw the Missing Children’s Division before retiring in 2007, helped conceive of the idea for a rapid-response team, not unlike the National Transportation Safety Board, which responds to serious transportation accidents. With a $3 million initial grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the first team of about 20 consultants was formed in 2003. Team Adam now receives financial support from the U.S. Department of Justice and OnStar.

Team Adam consultants are deployed in cases of nonfamily abductions; critical family abductions; and lost, injured, or otherwise missing children, and this year are expected to have more than 150 deployments—the highest number yet, Ermini said.10

“One of the crown jewels of NCMEC is Team Adam, bar none,” said Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who used Team Adam as a sounding board in the search for nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was buried alive with her purple dolphin doll not far from her home in Florida.11 “The chiefs and sheriffs shouldn’t be hesitant to involve them. I speak highly of them just because I experienced their value. They were my lifeline to the center.”12

Today, Team Adam consultants also participate in Project ALERT (America’s Law Enforcement Retiree Team), which began in 1992 and uses 165 retired law enforcement officers who volunteer their time, when requested by agencies, to help with long-term unsolved investigations of missing and exploited children. There are currently 13 retired police chiefs and one retired sheriff enrolled in both Team Adam and Project ALERT.

By participating in both, Team Adam consultants can follow through on cases that are not concluded quickly, said Ray Harp, the program manager.13 That way, there is continuity—they are already familiar with the case and have established relationships with the investigating agency.

Over a three-month period, 23 Project ALERT volunteers, who are reimbursed for their travel expenses, assisted Delaware law enforcement in its investigation into Lewes, Delaware, pediatrician Earl Bradley, who has been accused of sexually abusing more than 100 of his young patients.14 They helped develop a central repository of the information in the Bradley case, worked on the process for reviewing medical records, and responded to victim e-mails and concerns.

Team Adam consultants are paid because they must remain on-call and respond at a moment’s notice. After retiring in 2008 as a detective with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office in Nevada, Stephanie Moen joined Project ALERT to use her training and experience to help children. A year later, she was chosen for Team Adam, and her first assignment came on May 9, 2010, when the phone rang at 1:45 a.m. in her Nevada home. She was deployed to Chandler, Arizona, where a potentially suicidal father was missing, along with his seven-year-old autistic son.

Moen, whose husband is also a Project ALERT volunteer, jumped on the first flight out of Reno, Nevada. She coordinated her arrival with Danny Defenbaugh, a retired FBI Special Agent and veteran Team Adam consultant, who was flying in from Texas.

Chandler Police Chief Sherry Kiyler welcomed assistance from Moen and Defenbaugh, who had 55 years of law enforcement experience between them. Moen and Defenbaugh helped to interview relatives, including the wife and the mother, and gave advice on the search. The case ended quickly and tragically. The father had driven his red Mazda off a cliff, killing his son and himself.15 Before leaving, the consultants made sure the distraught widow was aware of counseling resources available to her through the national center.

But of the 571 critically missing children Team Adam has been deployed to look for, 390 have been found safe, including a 16-year-old endangered runaway who was recovered in 2004. Melinda Stevens (formerly Collins), who joined Team Adams after 30 years with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and is now the director of NCMEC’s Missing Children Division, got to personally deliver the news to the girl’s parents.

“When you assist in the recovery of a child or a child coming home safe, there’s nothing like it,” Stevens said.16


Landfill Searches for Missing Children

Ron Olive began his law enforcement career as a police officer in Saint Louis, Missouri. He went on to become a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), earning the first NCIS Counterintelligence Career Achievement Award. He wrote the book Capturing Jonathan Pollard: How One of the Most Notorious Spies in American History Was Brought to Justice after getting the naval intelligence analyst to confess to spying for Israel.

These days, Olive has another first on his résumé: He’s a national expert in landfill searches.

Law enforcement is discovering that more and more victims of homicide are being deposited in dumpsters and wind up in landfills, but law enforcement didn’t have a clue of what to do, said Olive, a Team Adam consultant who lives near Phoenix, Arizona. “I figured this would be a good way to put a methodology and a protocol together for the national center. There’s an investigative process,” he added.17

Olive didn’t have a clue either during his first landfill search in 1995 when he worked for NCIS, so he began studying landfills. He learned firsthand that searching them can be a dangerous business, with blood- and airborne pathogens, toxic and human waste, and other hazards such as methane gas and carbon dioxide. Safety is paramount, as is cooperating with landfill management, conducting a landfill assessment, developing an operations plan, and, above all, being flexible.

During his numerous deployments to landfills, Olive has found that the chances of recovering a body “are not in our favor.” But, he has shown time and again that it can be done, even years later. The most impressive to date, Olive said, was the search for 16-year-old Joanna Rogers in Lubbock, Texas, which began on August 24, 2006, nearly two years after she was discovered missing from her bedroom.

The Lubbock County Sheriff’s Office was determined to bring closure to the family and justice to the perpetrator, despite the projected cost of $200,000. After heavy equipment operators removed the top layer of the target area, the local police, the FBI, and volunteers in protective clothing helped sheriff’s deputies hand-search the 200- by 200-foot grid, one layer at a time. For more than two months, they toiled for long hours in the Texas heat, the driving rain, and the stench of rotting garbage. When they got down to 35 feet, they found Joanna’s remains.18


Lee manning and Ron Olive pause while searching
a landfill in Roanoke, Virginia

A shorter and less expensive, but equally emotional, landfill search came in January, when the mother of two-year-old Aveion Lewis told police that her son had been kidnapped from their Roanoke, Virginia, apartment by three men who demanded $10,000 in ransom for his safe return. Her husband, Aveion’s stepfather, had been knocked unconscious, she said, and her four-year-old daughter had been gagged and bound upstairs.

Days before the stepfather recanted, admitting that Aveion had died in the apartment, Olive advised police by phone to segregate the trash in the dumpsters around the apartment complex, just in case. On January 2, 2010, Olive was deployed to Roanoke to join two other Team Adam consultants, John Nemec and Lee Manning, in the search of Smith Gap Landfill in Salem, Virginia.

“Who would have thought you would have a landfill expert?” said Roanoke Police Lieutenant Danny Brabham. “We’d never done anything like that. He let us know what we would need and how it would work. What shocked us most was the logistics and basically how the landfill works.”19

The police department purchased Tyvek suits and rakes and borrowed boots from the fire department. Before a team of police recruits could begin their methodical search, checking inside every discarded bag, the four railcars of segregated trash had to be brought down by 6 to 12 inches, Olive said. Complicating the search was 100 feet of fiber optic cables intertwined with the mud and trash, making it difficult to dig.

With a major snow storm approaching, police committed to searching for three days. It was tedious, exhaustive work, and searchers were always on the lookout for a newspaper clipping with the date that Aveion went missing. They hit pay dirt, finding a notebook that the apartment manager had thrown out. They knew they were on the right track.

“I said, ‘Keep opening those bags, cause we’re going to find that baby,” Olive told police.

And on the third day, they did.20

“To bring children home safe is our mission,” said Olive. “But that isn’t always the case. When it isn’t, then it switches. Then the mission changes to bring closure to the family. We can bring the resources of NCMEC to these law enforcement agencies to bring these murderers of defenseless children to justice. That’s why I do it.”21

‘Treat It as a Crime Scene’

All investigations of critically missing children start as a search operation, but as many who have experienced them know, they can quickly snowball into a chaotic scene. Parents are panicking. Neighbors show up and call their friends. Media trucks set up camp at the site where the child was last seen.

“The next thing you know, you have 100 people standing out there in the yard, and this thing is getting bigger and harder to control,” said Schmidt, who saw more than 800 people show up to search for the missing six-year-old in Saint George, Utah. “Keep people away. Treat it as a crime scene, the place last seen. That’s the progression I always advise. Most of the time we want to go further and lose sight of where we were at.”


Lee manning and Tom Lewis II with
baby Shannon Dedrick in
Chipley, Florida

On October 31, 2009, Manning, a search-and-rescue expert who retired after 32 years with the Massachusetts State Police, was deployed to Chipley, Florida, to help coordinate the search well under way for seven-month-old Shannon Lee Dedrick. Her mother said that when she woke up in her rented trailer, Shannon was missing from her bassinette. Manning recommended the highest probability areas to search and the resources to deploy to those areas and emphasized the importance of documenting search efforts.

Fellow Team Adam consultant Thomas F. Lewis II, who retired after 28 years as chief of the FBI’s polygraph program, helped with the investigation. The mother’s story was changing. Next she claimed that she had taken Shannon for a walk in an attempt to calm her down, left the child on the side of the road, and then blacked out. The investigation showed that the child’s aunt/babysitter had a conviction in the mysterious disappearance of her own three-year-old stepson, who was never found.

Now five days into the search, the homes of both the mother and babysitter were searched again. This time, they found Shannon crying inside a cedar box under the aunt/babysitter’s bed, where investigators believe she had been for about 12 hours. Baking soda had been sprinkled inside to mask the smell of her diaper and foil searchers from detecting her there.22

After she was checked out at a hospital, Sheriff Bobby Haddock called a press conference, saying he had some important information, Manning said.

“If you follow me with your cameras, I’ll show you some new developments,” Manning said the sheriff told reporters. “He came out with her in his arms. It was unbelievable. There was not a dry eye in that place.”23


Other Free Services

In addition to Team Adam and Project ALERT, NCMEC offers a wide variety of training and other free services to aid law enforcement in missing children and child sexual exploitation cases, including case analysis and technical support; forensic support, including age-progression; missing children photo distribution; unsolved case analysis; a Child Victim Identification Program, which works to identify and rescue child victims of child pornography and help track fugitive sex offenders; and the CyberTipline, which serves as the nation’s 9-1-1 for the Internet to report suspected child sexual exploitation. For more information, visit http://www.missingkids.com.■   

Notes:

1Henry Schmidt, phone interview, June 2010.
2Paul Koepp, “Missing St. George Boy Found,” Deseret News (June 13, 2010), http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700039994/Missing-St-George-boy-found.html (accessed November 2, 2010).
3Marlon Stratton, phone interview, July 2010.
4Steve Cywinski, phone interview, November 4, 2010, for 2010 National Public Safety Information Bureau Data, http://www.safetysource.com.
5Priscilla Stegenga, personal interview, June 2010.
6Ernie Allen, personal interview, July 2010.
7Marlon Stratton, phone interview, June 2010.
8Robert Hoever, personal interview, June 2010.
9Robert Hoever, personal interview, June 2010.
10Ben Ermini, personal interview, May 2010.
11“Prosecutors: Lunsford Raped, Buried Alive,” Fox News (April 20, 2005), http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,154109,00.html (accessed November 2, 2010).
12Jeff Dawsy, phone interview, June 2010.
13Ray Harp, personal interview, June 2010.
14Emily Friedman, “Pediatrician Earl Bradley Charged with Molestation of 103 Children,” ABC News (February 23, 2010), http://abcnews.go.com/WN/delaware-pediatrician-earl-bradley-indicted-103-counts-sexual/story?id=9921990 (accessed November 2, 2010).
15Elizabeth Erwin, “Police: Boy, Dad’s Bodies Found by Car: Officials Say Vehicle Flew off Cliff, Killing Both People Inside,” May 9, 2010, updated May 10, 2010, KPHO.com, http://www.kpho.com/news/23502001/detail.html (accessed November 3, 2010).
16Amanda Lamb, “‘Team Adam’ Fighting Child Abduction One Search at a Time,” WRAL.com, May12, 2005, http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/117056/ (accessed November 3, 2010).
17Ron Olive, phone interview, June 2010.
18Beth Aaron, “Recovered Human Remains Positively Identified as Joanna Rogers,” Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Tuesday, October 31, 2006), http://lubbockonline.com/stories/103106/loc_103106034.shtml (accessed November 2, 2010).
19Danny Brabham, phone interview, June 2010.
20Edecio Martinez, “Aveion Lewis Body Found in Landfill; 2-Year-Old’s Stepfather Charged, Abduction Story Called Hoax,” Crimesider, CBSNews.com, February 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-6119448-504083.html (accessed November 3, 2010).
21Jay Felsberg, “Shannon Lee Dedrick Found Safe and Sound under a Bed,” Washington County News (November 5, 2009), http://www.chipleypaper.com/articles/shannon-4639-bed-sound.html (accessed November 2, 2010).
22Melissa Nelson, “Susan Elizabeth Baker Hid Baby: Shannon Dedrick Found under Bed after 5 Days Missing,” HuffingtonPost.com November 5, 2009, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/05/susan-elizabeth-baker-hid_n_346930.html (accessed November 3, 2010).
23Lee Manning, phone interview, June 2010.

Please cite as:

Robert G. Lowery Jr., "Team Adam: Providing Missing Child Search Support for Police Agencies" The Police Chief 77 (December 2010): 88–91,
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM1210/#/88 (insert access date).


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 12, December 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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