Tacoma team earns praise in abduction training exercise

Team shows off skills by nabbing ‘kidnapper’ after 5-hour drill

Staff writerSeptember 12, 2013 

The abduction was mock but the response was real.

Police swarmed Heritage Park in Northeast Tacoma on Thursday after a woman called 911 to report seeing a man kidnap a 14-year-old girl.

The girl was an assistant chief’s daughter, the kidnapper was a detective and the whole thing was an exercise designed to prove to the U.S. Department of Justice that the police department’s Child Abduction Response Team deserves certification.

If certified, the team will be the first in the state and the 20th nationwide. There are 104 teams across the country, but few have earned federal certification.

Alan Wolochuk, a retired California police officer and one of two assessors judging the team’s performance, said he will strongly recommend the Justice Department certify Tacoma’s team, but official word won’t come for weeks.

“They did very well,” he said. “What we saw is among the best around the entire United States.”

About 150 people participated in the five-hour exercise, which started with the abduction, included tracking dogs and evidence processing and ended with a SWAT takedown of the “kidnapper” in a wooded area around a police firing range.

Only a handful of people knew how the scenario would play out. Detectives on the case had to rely on old-fashioned investigative skills to follow clues.

“This is an actual live exercise and we get to use and improve on our skills,” detective Tom Williams said. “When the next kidnapping comes up, we’ll be even more prepared.”

Teams angling for certification must solve the case within six hours. Statistics show the first four hours after an abduction are the most critical in recovering a child safely.

Tacoma’s team took about five hours to arrest the kidnapper and save the girl.

Within the first three hours, the team issued an Amber Alert, canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses and fielded tips from role-playing witnesses and psychics. One tipster sent police to Viewpoint Park, where she said she saw the man and girl featured on the Amber Alert walking down a trail.

Searchers scoured the area for fresh footprints and broken shrubs before calling in three search dogs to track the pair. Under a tree they found a red shirt belonging to the kidnapper.

Watching the investigation unfold were three parents whose daughters were kidnapped in past years. Angela Meeker was abducted in 1979, Jennifer Bastian in 1986 and Teekah Lewis in 1999.

John Meeker said the resources available nowadays might have saved abducted children in the past.

“I’m overwhelmed. It’s amazing,” he said. “I had no idea the technology they’ve got today. Within minutes, they’ve got something going.”

While the team was processing the shirt and scouring the area for other evidence, another tipster called in to report seeing the kidnapper pulling into a nearby driveway. The driveway ended up being the police firing range, a location chosen for safety reasons because the team used real guns.

A SWAT team arrived in an armored vehicle and quickly pulled in behind the kidnapper’s SUV. After ensuring nobody was inside, they pulled up a dirt road and quickly snagged the suspect, who walked out of the trees on his own.

The victim was found nearby and was taken to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital to be checked over and interviewed.

Pattie Bastian, whose daughter was abducted and killed in Point Defiance Park, said the drill showed how dedicated police are to finding missing children.

“They’ve got the best of the best of the professionals,” she said. “I couldn’t be prouder of Tacoma.”

The specially trained CART team has 31 members from 12 agencies, including the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, FBI, the Child Advocacy Center, Child Protective Services and the state Department of Corrections.

The team is broken down into six teams and oversees all aspects of the criminal investigation. They coordinate search efforts, interview witnesses and family members, set up a tip line and field phone calls, talk to registered sex offenders, process evidence and pull resources from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other agencies.

So far, the cost to forming the team has been minimal. Members attend training within normal work hours and no new equipment has been bought. Police detective Lindsey Wade, who helped form the team, said she hopes to find grant money to buy computer tablets for field officers.

The team was formed in 2008, four years after the concept emerged from a 2004 kidnapping of an 11-year-old girl in Florida. Officials said the team was begun to improve the chances of safely finding missing children. Since 1961, there have been 16 child abductions in the city. Half remain unsolved.

“Which is a lot,” said police Lt. Rob Jepson, who heads the department’s CART. “There’s obviously a need.”

The team has been activated three times. The first time was for two boys who ran away, the second for a mentally disabled teenage girl who walked away with a sex offender and the third for an abducted baby.

To become certified, the team must show it meets 47 standards and demonstrate them in a live exercise. Wolochuk, the assessor, said the team appeared to meet all policies and procedures. On Wednesday, the team spent most of the day pouring over several binders of information that Jepson and Wade spent months pulling together.

After the exercise ended, Wade said she was glad to show the families of kidnapped children, past and future, that kids’ safety is a top priority. Getting tentative approval from the assessor made all the hard work worth it, she said.

“Everybody was on their A-game,” Wade said. “It was great to see everybody come together. I couldn’t be happier.”

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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