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Specialized search team chalks up success in finding Volusia 1-year-old

Date Added: December 04, 2011 10:10 am

Specialized search team chalks up success in finding Volusia 1-year-old 
By PATRICIO G. BALONA, Staff writer

SEVILLE -- Standing on his four-wheeler, deputy Edward Hart could see what looked like a small head of hair under a tree 25 yards away.

He raced across the open pasture toward the tree and as he got closer, he could see the toddler lying in a fetal position with her face down in the dirt.

"Hey, little one, can you hear me?" Hart called out.

There was no reaction from the child.

"I quietly prayed, 'Oh God, please let her be alive,' " Hart said.

Hart stopped and ran from the all-terrain vehicle and jumped over a barbed-wire fence.

"As soon as my boot hit the ground, the little girl looked up," Hart said. "She began to cry and reached out her arms for me."

The bug-bitten, shoeless child was wearing only a pink onesie suit and was covered with dirt.

After a search that seemed like an eternity, Hart sent the message over his radio: "Small child found under a tree. Conscious."

The news brought relief to the search-and-rescue team desperately looking for 1-year-old Lupita Gonzalez for almost 12 hours, said Volusia sheriff's Lt. Erik Eagan.

Eagan is a trained member of the multi-agency Sheriff's Office Child Abduction Response Team, which was coordinated at the scene by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The team ran the search-and-rescue operation in Seville last Saturday.

The Volusia team's training started in January, and last weekend's incident in Seville was the first time the team was deployed in the county, Eagan said.

"Once we get to the scene we take care of logistics, coordinate with volunteers and organize search-and-rescue operations to carry out methodical searches," Eagan said.

As prepared as the team was, they feared they might not find little Lupita alive. She had been missing for more than 30 hours, Eagan said.

"There was extreme concern because we knew the time lapse was detrimental to our operations," Eagan said. "Due to the age, we knew we had a child in the early stages of mobility that could not care for or defend itself."

And after at least 30 hours in the open exposed to the elements, in temperatures in the low 50s, searchers weren't too hopeful, Eagan said.

"We planned for the worst and hoped for the best," Eagan said.

According to sheriff's investigators, Lupita was kidnapped by Carlos Rivera, 23, from a Thanksgiving Day party at a home on Lawrence Street and abandoned in an open and wooded 25-acre pasture. Rivera had paid the child's mother, Leah Wiley, 30, for sex but she left him when someone else called her away, deputies said.

An upset Rivera then took the child about 7 a.m. Friday. He reported her missing at 4:42 a.m. Saturday, investigators said.

The Child Abduction Response Team went into action.

Fifty deputies and a helicopter were assisted by bloodhounds from Tomoka Correctional Institution, response team-trained officers from Ormond Beach, New Smyrna Beach, DeLand, Orange City, Putnam County, Volusia County Fire Services, the Volusia Bureau of Investigations and sheriff's Citizens on Patrol, Volusia sheriff's spokesman Gary Davidson said.

Flagler County also has CART-trained law enforcement officers, but they are affiliated with a northeast Florida region and did not take part in the Seville search.

The teams provide training in responding to abducted children and also serve as a "force multiplier," adding resources during an investigation, Davidson said.

Jack Massey, FDLE's resident agent-in-charge of the program in Daytona Beach, who was at the Seville scene, said the team started in the Orlando area in 2004 and became a statewide program. The training brings a lot of resources to agencies, especially small ones.

"Basically it is multiple city, county, state resources pooled together to look for an abducted or missing child," Massey said. "It gives that agency a lot more people for whatever they need us to do, whether it is to search the woods or follow investigative leads."

Rivera is in jail without bail on charges of child abuse and kidnapping with bodily harm and is being held for immigration and Putnam County authorities. Wiley is locked up on one count of an act that could result in the physical/mental injury of a child and held on $10,000 bail.

The small child and two other siblings have been placed in foster care while the Department of Children & Families continues to investigate.

Lupita spent all day and night Friday alone in an open pasture near woods, prone to wild animal attacks, and 60 yards from the train tracks where cargo and Amtrak trains sped north and south, Hart said.

"Her life was in great danger," Hart said.

The team started by breaking up the search area into grids, and Hart was assigned the 25-acre pasture where he found the small child at 3:30 p.m.

The program successfully did what it was created to do, said Sheriff Ben Johnson. After attending a training seminar in Virginia for executive officers in August 2010 hosted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Johnson was impressed with the concept, referred to by officers as CART, and felt very strongly that it was a useful tool that needed to be strengthened locally.

"We believe the CART is there to make sure that whoever is missing has a fair chance of coming home safe and sound," Johnson said. "We owe that to the missing child and family."

An important fact about the incident was that law enforcement treated the call seriously and did not hesitate in responding, Davidson said.

"We had a drunk guy calling us, and in the initial call, was not making any sense," Davidson said. "We had to treat it as legitimate. We learned a valuable lesson Saturday."

Although the CART trains for incidents, Lupita's case was a "very good practical exercise" that gave the team an actual scenario to work with and the CART plan worked "just as it was supposed to work," Johnson said.

"We had a very positive conclusion," Johnson said. "A little girl coming home still very healthy, instead of a tragic end."

Child Finders

Child Abduction Response Team training, also called CART, was brought to this area in five days of training in January at the request of Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson. It was carried out by the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.


The local CART Team covers all of Central Florida.

WHO PARTICIPATED: The training at the Deputy Stephen Saboda Training Center near Daytona Beach this year was attended by 60 people from Volusia, Brevard, Seminole, St. Johns and Lake County sheriff's offices, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Ormond Beach, Port Orange, Orange City, New Smyrna Beach police departments, Volusia County Fire Services, Flagler County Fire/Rescue and the State Attorney's Office.

FIRST RESCUE: On Nov. 26, two Putnam County deputies, five FDLE agents, four DeLand police officers, three Orange City officers, three Tomoka Correctional Institution bloodhounds, Assistant State Attorney Ryan Will, one Daytona Beach officer from the Volusia Bureau of Investigations, and two agents –– one from Ormond Beach and one from New Smyrna Beach police departments –– of the Eastside Narcotics Task Force, helped in the successful search for 1-year-old Lupita Gonzalez in Seville.


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