CANTON — An aggressive response by police agencies and the community may have saved the lives of two young kidnapping victims, according to Robert G. Lowery, vice president for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s missing children’s department.
The girls were found within 24 hours in Bigelow, just 15 miles from where they were abducted from a roadside stand in front of their home in Heuvelton. Stephen M. Howells, II, 39, and Nicole F. Vaisey, 25, were each charged with two felony counts of first-degree kidnapping with the intent to physically or sexually abuse the sisters, ages 7 and 12.
“This is one of the rarest cases we have ever seen,” according Mr. Lowery, who has been working on missing-children cases fmore than 30 years. “We don’t have two children taken at once in a public area when you have other adults around. Given that a couple was involved, that makes it extremely unique. Typically we have a lone abductor taking a single child.”
The National Center of Missing and Exploited Children works alongside the FBI in investigations to help locate missing children. The center immediately had workers at the command center at the Heuvelton Fire Department after the girls went missing around 7 p.m. Wednesday. The center helped dispatch helicopter teams and perform case analysis and secondary distributions of Amber Alerts.
Mr. Lowery said kidnapping cases are the most difficult, but pressure from law enforcement, the media and community may have been persuaded the abductors to release the girls, he said.
“Each one of these abductions is different,” he said. “But because of the law enforcement response, the community was engaged, and the Amber Alert was activated. It isn’t uncommon that the abductors would let the children go out of fear of being identified or arrested. We have seen that it has become more prevalent that children are let go even under ...worse and dire circumstances, but we still have children killed.”
When the national center opened 30 years ago, the recovery rate of missing children was 64 percent. That number now exceeds 98 percent, Mr. Lowery said.
“If these children were going to be killed, it would be in the first few hours,” Mr. Lowery said. “Time is our enemy. We have to act quickly, and we have to get the resources in place start the search immediately.”
Mr. Lowery said Tuesday that “stranger abductions are really rare” and that can make it more difficult to track down the abductors.
According to information reported by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there were 8,679 reported family abduction cases nationwide in the last four years. That number drops significantly to 647 in the case of stranger abductions. In New York, there were reportedly 252 abductions in the last four years, of which just 14 were non-family abductions.
Mr. Lowery credited the hundreds of law enforcement personnel and the victims themselves in helping investigators to capture the suspects.
“It was a very aggressive and robust from our view,” he said. “It is a relief that these abductors have been caught because we know those willing to take children are likely to offend again.”
Sheriff Kevin M. Wells has said that there is evidence the couple planned to victimize more children.
“Because child abductions in New York are so rare, most law enforcement do not have experience in these kinds of cases,” he said. “Having the availability of the FBI is extremely helpful in these unique and worst-of-the-worst kinds of cases.”
St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain has since said the victims were sexually assaulted.
The couple may have also sexually assaulted other children who knew them.
The DA said “in the case of sexual predators, we know, statistically, they have probably victimized before they are caught by police. We’ll definitely be looking into that. For the most part, sexual predators prey on people that trust them. They leave their children with them or are children are in their presence at some point.”
Ms. Rain said police are interviewing family and close friends of the two suspects. Evidence found in the couple’s home will also provide leads, she said.
“I can’t confirm any kind of video equipment was found, but police were looking for cameras, computer data, pictures, DNA, fingerprints, bedding — all of those things” at the scene, Ms. Rain said.