This year’s Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony was held today in Tallahassee. The annual event is held to remember Florida’s missing children, recognize the state’s efforts in child protection and to educate Floridians on child safety and abduction prevention.
In 2020, more than 24,000 incidents of missing children were reported to Florida law enforcement agencies, while 34 Missing Child Alerts and 19 AMBER Alerts were issued statewide. Since its inception, 269 AMBER Alerts have been issued, including 10 so far this year. Florida AMBER Alerts have directly aided in the rescue of 77 children.
Governor Ron DeSantis said, “Florida’s children are the future of our state and society, and we must work to protect them. On Missing Children’s Day, we raise awareness about children whose fates are unknown and whose parents hope for the best despite suffering unimaginable grief. I know that every day our law enforcement officers put themselves in danger to protect Florida’s children and seek to reunite those who are missing alongside Florida’s child advocates. We thank them for their work.”
First Lady Casey DeSantis said, “Our children are our world and neither I nor the Governor can contemplate the unfathomable pain that families of missing children must experience daily. There are so many Floridians who are dedicated to finding missing children and bringing to justice those who are implicated in their disappearances. I am thankful that these men and women follow every clue on the path to reuniting children with their families and by working together we will continue to foster hope for their loved ones.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody said, “As a mother, I cannot imagine the horrific pain of not knowing where your child is or if they are safe. My heart goes out to every family going through this tragic nightmare. As we recognize Missing Children’s Day in Florida, I want to thank all of our law enforcement agencies for their tireless efforts to return these children home. Justin and I continue to pray for the safe return of all missing children and the strength and safety of our law enforcement officers and others working to reunite families with their loved ones.”
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said, “As a father of two young boys, finding out your child is missing is every parent’s worst nightmare. The pain that these moms and dads go through every day without their children is heartbreaking. I’m proud of the work of our law enforcement community to ensure children are kept safe and that any child that goes missing is brought home.”
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried said, “Any time a child goes missing it is a tragedy that lives in the hearts of their families and our communities forever. Today and every day, we must remember these children and continue to raise awareness and educate communities about child safety. I’m grateful to all of our brave law enforcement officers who work every day to protect and rescue children and reunite them with their families.”
FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said, “The continued vigilance of Florida’s citizens is one of the best tools we have for protecting our children. From sharing active AMBER and Missing Child Alerts on social media, to signing up to receive email or phone notifications about new alerts, to the actions of everyday heroes like today’s award winners, I am grateful for the efforts of our fellow Floridians who help to safeguard our children and work to safely bring them home.”
During a formal ceremony, Commissioner Swearingen recognized citizens, canine trailing teams and law enforcement officers for their exemplary efforts in missing children investigations.
The following individuals are recipients of the 2021 Florida Missing Children’s Day Awards:
John and Revé Walsh Award
Winner: Judy Thigpin
Ms. Thigpin has been working with several K-9 search and rescue teams since 1989. Over the last 30 years, she and her K-9s have assisted in over 300 missing person searches. She responds quickly when requested and volunteers to work in rough, sometimes dangerous conditions. She trains on her own time to keep her K-9s certified, and donates her travel time and equipment to the search.
Citizen of the Year
Winner: Mr. Robert Riley, Hillsborough County
Mr. Riley was performing maintenance at an RV park where he noticed a toddler wandering alone near a roadway. After several minutes he approached the toddler, who was barefoot, and called 911.
Combatting Human Trafficking Award
Winner: Trooper John Ethan Ellerbee, Florida Highway Patrol
In April 2020, a suspect fled from a vehicle into the woods. The investigation revealed he had multiple outstanding felony warrants for his arrest. Through Trooper Ellerbee’s dedication and work, it was determined that the suspect was a violent felony offender of special concern, he was in possession of firearms and drugs and involved in human trafficking and production of child sexual abuse material. A missing juvenile was recovered as a result of this investigation and other minor victims were identified. The suspect was arrested and charged federally for his crimes.
Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Deputy Royce James, Volusia County Sheriff’s Office
In February 2021, a 13-year-old girl was reported missing after not showing up to an afterschool event. The child’s friend told the missing girl’s guardian that she had been picked up by an unknown male whose name may have been “Tyler.” With only this information, Deputy James began checking hotels in an effort to find her. Eventually, Deputy James found a possible suspect that had checked in to one of the hotels. Deputy James immediately investigated the hotel room. As soon as the door was opened, the victim saw Deputy James and she ran and hugged him. Deputy James stayed with her through the investigation. The deputy’s determination to not view this case as a runaway juvenile saved the victim from further harm.
State Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Two separate winners: Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Darren Morgan and Corporal David Flores
While conducting a routine traffic stop, Trooper Morgan noticed a juvenile in the passenger seat. Trooper Morgan believed this juvenile may have been in a compromised position. He obtained the juvenile’s mother’s contact information and called her; the mother did not yet know the child was missing or that she had been taken out of the state. Due to Trooper Morgan’s insight, the child was returned home before a missing person report could be filed.
Corporal Flores was flagged down by a frantic mother whose 3-year-old child had wandered off while playing with other children. Corporal Flores immediately reported the incident and started to canvas the neighborhood and nearby ponds. Corporal Flores found the boy a few streets away within six minutes. Thankfully, he did not sustain any injuries and was safely returned to his mother.
Jimmy Ryce K-9 Trailing Team of the Year
Winner: Sergeant Frederick Gimbel and K-9 Holmes, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office
In June 2020, Sergeant Gimbel and K-9 Holmes were deployed to find a child with autism. Sergeant Gimbel and K-9 Holmes initially searched the immediate area where the child went missing while a scent article was obtained from the child’s home. K-9 Holmes pursued a trail through brush fields and wood lines until the juvenile was located under a large tree. Once the child was found, Sergeant Gimbel recognized the child was uncomfortable with the K-9 and immediately removed Holmes from the situation. Sergeant Gimbel and K-9 Holmes not only located the missing child, but Sergeant Gimbel was also considerate of the child’s specific needs, even when he did not verbally express those needs.
Law Enforcement Task Force of the Year
Winner: Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Task Force
The Selective Operations Section spent the last year and a half conducting numerous undercover operations with the goal of eliminating human trafficking in their area. During this time, they arrested 12 subjects on human trafficking charges and rescued two missing juvenile victims. They also rescued and provided services to 17 adult victims. In their investigations, they identified subjects who preyed on minors through internet applications. In total, the task force made 65 arrests for various felony charges related to solicitation of juveniles. Five of the suspects arrested were registered sexual offenders.
Winner: Tallahassee Police Department Investigators Elizabeth Bascom, Paul Osborn and Mark Ray; Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Eric Eick; Assistant State Attorney Lorena Vollrath-Bueno and Assistant United States Attorney Michelle Spaven
The Project Stolen Innocence investigation was conducted between November 2018 and November 2020. The investigation started when an investigator discovered a child victim on an electronic advertisement. The victim was recovered and an investigation into affiliated social media accounts and phone accounts was conducted, which yielded thousands of pages of evidence relating to crimes against children. The evidence was processed, and it was discovered that 596 individuals had communicated with minor victims. The team cooperated in obtaining evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and preparing charges. Project Stolen Innocence yielded 435 charges on 177 suspects.
Evelyn D. Williams Memorial Award
Winner: Detective Jason Carter, Coral Springs Police Department
In January 2020, Detective Carter worked over 150 hours in a two-week period in support of Super Bowl Human Trafficking Operations which resulted in the recovery of four juveniles who were being trafficked and three federal arrests. In addition to this investigation, Detective Carter investigated an adult that was extorting and threatening minors for illicit photographs and videos. The investigation located victims across eight states and included 80 victims between the ages of 10 to 14. The suspect was arrested, fined and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Bus Operator of the Year
Winner: Ms. Naesha Williams-Mathis, Leon County
Ms. Williams-Mathis was driving her usual Leon County school bus route when she spotted an unaccompanied toddler, holding a bottle in the middle of the road. Ms. Williams-Mathis stopped the bus, extended the STOP arm, and opened the bus doors. She took the child’s hand and escorted the toddler onto the bus’s front seat before she called the incident into dispatch and waited for law enforcement to arrive. While they waited, Ms. Williams-Mathis spoke softly to the child and sang songs. The middle school students in the bus stayed quiet while the toddler was on the bus. The guardian of the child came out of the home looking for the toddler as law enforcement officers were arriving. The home door had been left partially open by one of the guardians leaving for work that morning. The child was returned safely.
To see a current list of AMBER Alert cases, please visit: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentAlerts.asp.
A current list of Missing Child Alert cases can be found here: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentMCAlerts.asp.
We invite the public to follow FDLE on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up to receive Missing Child and AMBER Alerts via email or text message by visiting www.missingchildrenalert.com. For more information about the Florida Missing Children’s Day Foundation, visit www.fmcdf.org.