Imagine being a mother who has just discovered that her 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter never showed up at their friends' house and have been missing for four hours. Then imagine being the cop who will spend the next eight hours with that mother and experience her anguish not only as a police officer, but as a parent.
We started the initial investigation with the by-the-book menu of things you learn in the academy to solve these kinds of cases 90 percent of the time: neighborhood canvass, teletypes to other police departments, telephone calls (lots of them) to friends and relatives.
I soon realized that mom was an incredible source of information. My assignment was to stay with her throughout. I was also the one she grabbed onto and sobbed with when she identified her children's bicycles and helmets, found near some abandoned railroad tracks. She asked me why her children's items were found more than 15 miles from home. I hoped she didn't see my watery eyes at that moment, because I was trained to be professional and detached.
In the police business, this is when the unspeakable becomes conceivable. A chief from our department took command. Photos of the children were distributed to surrounding agencies and the media. Search-and-rescue teams with dogs began to search the area.
Sheriff's deputies and Lancaster police conducted a door-to-door search of the neighborhood. Patrol cars from other districts were diverted to the area to assist, and detectives were called in to start processing a possible crime scene.
Mom and I sat in my patrol car as the "heavy equipment" of the Sheriff's Department was mobilized. As our helicopter hovered overhead, I explained to her how the heat-seeking identification unit and special night photography equipment worked. She was amazed when two all-terrain vehicles from our Special Services Division arrived, and deputies began to search the surrounding fields.
I decided to be honest when she asked why there were fire trucks at a pond near the railroad tracks. They were dredging for bodies.
Around 1 a.m., two sharp-eyed Depew cops spotted the children in the village. The entire drama suddenly came to an end. No crime had occurred, just an attention-seeking "adventure." Mom and her children were quickly reunited.
What were the lessons? Well, for one, I have new respect for the power of cooperation and coordination. Diverse agencies such as the Sheriff's Department, Lancaster Police, Cheektowaga Police and Depew Police all came together with egos over turf and responsibilities set aside. How can I not mention all of those firemen? Yes, there were loads of them from Lancaster, Depew and Alden, all united in just one mission -- to find those kids.
I also have learned to understand and respect the media since this incident. Cops seem to be ingrained with a mistrust for anyone behind a notebook or microphone. During this event, however, I saw dedicated professionals striving for accurate details so the public could assist with the search.
I know this is going to sound self-serving, but I am still in awe at the resources of the Erie County Sheriff's Department. I have seen the strength of this organization during critical incidents many times, but it makes this Erie County resident feel very safe knowing that it is there, ready to protect our families.
George A. Avery, an Erie County sheriff's deputy, recalls one of his most rewarding days on the job.