For a few hours, Trudy paced her home Tuesday night.
The 51-year-old mother frantically called and text-messaged her ex-boyfriend to see where he was after she emerged from her bedroom to find he left her Lehigh Acres home with her car and 5-year-old daughter.
There was no answer.
She and her family searched for her daughter in Fort Myers. Trudy knew that’s where William Devon Cole hung out sometimes, looking for his next high. They spotted her blue Ford Fusion a few times, but Cole drove away recklessly with her daughter in the vehicle, Trudy said.
“We just searched for hours and hours,” Trudy said. Close to midnight she called 911 and reported her daughter missing to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. Trudy said she asked for the Amber Alert when a deputy came to take her report.
She told them Cole left her house at 6 p.m. Tuesday with her daughter and vehicle without her permission. She believed he was going to Home Depot, but he never returned. “Cole has been known to be a heavy drug user and she is worried for the safety of her (redacted),” the LCSO incident report states.
A Fort Myers police arrest report for Cole, 33, indicates he had no parental rights and she didn’t give him permission to take her child.
Cole was arrested by police four hours after Trudy’s 911 call. Investigators say he kidnapped Trudy’s daughter and during the 10-hour window sexually assaulted the child. He faces kidnapping and false imprisonment, sexual assault and sexual battery charges. He remains in Lee County Jail on a $135,000 bond for his new charges but is being held for a probation violation.
The News-Press is not identifying Trudy by her last name to maintain the privacy of her daughter, a victim of sexual assault.
“I was really hysterical by then,” Trudy said about the time she called 911. “This was probably about four hours in. She’s never been gone this long with him.”
“I asked for the Amber Alert,” Trudy said. “(The deputy) said there’s too much red tape with the AMBER Alert. He said ‘I can put out a missing person alert instead.’
“I don’t know what the red tape is, but those are the words he used.”
An Amber Alert is a broadcast message released to the media and public alerting people of a missing child in the company of an adult. Certain criteria needs to be met before a law enforcement agency can send an alert. The sheriff’s office criteria that needs to be met include: the child must be under the age of 18, there needs to be a clear indication of abduction, the child must be in immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death, there needs to be enough descriptive information to include in the alert and the child’s name and the Amber Alert activation must be recommended by the sheriff’s office.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the red tape allegation made by Trudy. They referred questions to their operations manual that has a section on procedures for missing children’s investigations and Amber Alerts.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office chose not to send an AMBER Alert in the case of Trudy’s daughter because at the time of the preliminary investigation, the criteria for an Amber Alert was not met, said Sgt. Anita Iriarte, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.
She declined to say which criteria was not met.
The sheriff’s office manual on missing persons cases states that if a child is missing, the case should be treated as if an “abduction had taken place until significant information to the contrary can be confirmed.”
“I just don’t think the sheriff’s (office) did enough,” Trudy said. “He’s on drugs. That should have been enough for them to say we’ve got to get on this.”
Around 4 a.m. Wednesday Trudy heard from her son who said he found Cole and followed him, but his car broke down and Cole got away. He called 911 and Fort Myers police began searching for the blue Ford Fusion. At 4:52 a.m. they found it near Cranford and Lafayette streets and inside was the 5-year-old girl. Cole was found hiding behind 2676 St. Charles St.
In Florida, there were 12 Amber Alerts issued in 2016, and three so far this year, said Jessica Cary, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The Department of Justice states that as of Dec. 23, 2015, 800 children have been rescued because of the AMBER Alert.
The children in the three Amber Alerts this year were found. From 2016, the only Amber Alert remaining open is from Lee County. Diana Alvarez, a 9-year-old girl, went missing almost a year ago on May 29 from her San Carlos Park mobile home. She has not been found, but the main suspect in the case sits in jail for a federal child porn charge that includes an inappropriate photograph of the girl.
In that case, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office delayed an Amber Alert for four days after Diana went missing.
The Amber Alert is an imperfect system implemented by imperfect people, said Tamara Lave, a University of Miami professor and expert in criminal law and procedure.
It’s important to send out an alert, she said, but at the same time officers need to be careful not to saturate people’s phones with emergency messages because they will stop listening.
But, Lave said, that the child’s age in Tuesday’s kidnapping should have been “a tremendous thing to pay attention to.”
This incident is “pretty much a worst-case scenario,” said Bryanna Fox, a former FBI special agent and assistant professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida.
Fox has been working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to research the best response to different cases of missing and endangered children.
She said police usually get hung up on Amber Alert cases because the perpetrator may be someone the child knows.
But, in this case, because Trudy knew Cole was a drug-user, it necessitated an Amber Alert, Fox said.
“Those are the things you can take into account and say, this isn’t just on the fence, but this is a clear case where you need an AMBER Alert,” Fox said.
“I support, I think, being proactive,” Fox said. “A penny of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The Department of Children and Families has opened a child protection investigation involving the “very concerning incident that took place,” said Natalie Harrell, communications director for the SunCoast Region of DCF. Harrell said any potential involvement with the child cannot be disclosed because of confidentiality statutes.
Trudy said she did not allow herself to think past the point of recovering her daughter late Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
The 5-year-old is a precocious child who walks into the living room and engages in conversation with a reporter. She recently learned her ABC’s, she said, but she is too timid to recite them. Her mom said she refers to Cole as the “bad man.” On Thursday, she woke up asking if “the bad man was in jail,” Trudy said.
“Every time I think about what could have happened…” Trudy said, her sentence trailing off as she watched her 5-year-old at the kitchen table.
“I just thank God that she was found and is OK because it could have turned out tragic.”